June 22, 2012

Burning books to save a library?


This week, the Cannes Lions International Advertising Festival honors the most creative work in the ad industry, and one of the biggest winners is a campaign to save a small library in Michigan.

Faced with a budget shortfall last year, the Troy Public Library, located in a suburb north of Detroit, found its future depended on a ballot initiative that would raise taxes by 0.7%. Concerned about the possibility of the library’s closure, the global ad agency Leo Burnett (whose Detroit offices are, as it turns out, located in Troy), stepped in and devised a clever plan to save the library. Under the guise of a Tea Party-esque political action group called Safeguarding American Families, the agency crafted an ad campaign urging voters to defeat the tax increase, shut down the library, and attend a celebratory book burning party. They used yard signs, videos, and social media outlets to spread the word and get people talking, as outlined in this promotional video from Leo Burnett:

The campaign was picked up in local media and national outlets like Library Journal and was hotly debated online. Then, three weeks ahead of the vote, Safeguarding American Families revealed their true intentions and replaced the “Book Burning Party” signs with new ones urging residents to “Vote yes” to keep the library open. As reported by Leo Burnett, turnout in the election was “342% greater than projected,” and voters overwhelmingly approved the measure.

You’d think Troy’s librarians would have been elated. They weren’t though: through the whole campaign, Leo Burnett had never consulted with them, the Friends of the Troy Library, or the members of Save Troy, another action group formed to campaign for the library. The library’s director, Cathleen Russ, told Library Journal, “You put the words ‘book’ and ‘burning’ together and for librarians that’s like hitting a wasps’ nest with a stick. It’s not funny, it’s not cool.” And Phillip Kwik, the library’s public services director, wrote online, “I am appalled. […] All you did was cause confusion that Library supporters have been trying to avoid at all costs, as the previous elections were confused enough. All you did was add more divisiveness and bickering in a community that should be united on its love and need for a library.”

It’s also not clear that, as Leo Burnett’s video claims, opponents of the tax increase “dominated the conversation” or that the agency’s help was even needed. As reported by the Oakland Press, supporters turned out in large numbers at city council meetings, and council members all voiced their intention to “find ways to keep the city-operated library open.” And a poll commissioned by the city found local residents identified the threat of the library’s closure as the most important issue facing the city. The ballot initiative was even endorsed by the Troy Chamber of Commerce, which felt saving the library was good for business.

Which brings us back to today, as Leo Burnett is awarded four prestigious Cannes Lions for the “Book Burning Party” campaign. It’s hard not to wonder, considering the awards and the self-aggrandizing video, what the agency was really promoting: a public library, or their own business? Of course, these things don’t have to be mutually exclusive, and it’s possible Leo Burnett saw a chance both to help their community and score a bit of self-promotion. But I suppose I’d like to believe that, even as the political conversation in much of the country turns to small government and lower taxes, people don’t have to be tricked into voting for libraries.


Christopher King is the Art Director of Melville House.