Marketing from the Frontline

Gobby2 aug 2016Audre Lorde famously said “the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house”. Activists and other agents of change often quote her to make the point that to remake the world we need to make sure to not inadvertently re-establish the dynamics and structures we’re trying to move away from. We need to use social change tools of our own making that embody the world we want; tools that don’t carry the unjust, unsustainable ways of the past and present with us into the future. I used to agree with all that.

But here I am now – a PhD student working with Indigenous communities opposing pipelines on their territories and together we’re researching and practicing marketing as a tool for social change. Marketing!? I never thought I would be studying marketing. I guess I’m giving that oft-cited quote a lengthy re-think.

When we think of marketing, we think corporate advertising. We think deceptive, manipulative, expensive ads designed and paid for by corporations to make us feel inadequate in order to inspire us to buy their product, right? They use what psychologists and neuroscientists know about the human mind and motivation to drive our decision-making and consumption choices in their favour, to increase their profit margins, no? That’s how I saw the world of marketing…. until last summer.

During my first visit to the Unist’ot’en Action Camp, an Indigenous pipeline blockade in Northern BC, the spokesperson for the Unist’ot’en, Freda Huson, sat down at the breakfast table one morning and stated: “You know what needs to be researched? We need to research how to use the tools of marketing to counter what industry is telling people about Liquid Natural Gas”.

I had gone up there as an activist to support the very important work this community is doing. I had also hoped I may be able to offer my services as a researcher, maybe even get inspired about dissertation research questions informed and directed by the needs of this community. Freda’s question that morning became one of the central questions of my PhD research and I continue to work with the Unist’ot’en people and their supporters to answer it.

Who are the Unist’ot’en?

The Unist’ot’en territory lies directly in the path of multiple proposed oil and gas pipelines. In opposition to these development projects, during the last 5 years a group of Unist’ot’en people have built a permanent resistance camp “on their ancestral land, living in an intentional community directly in the planned route of the proposed pipelines” (Temper and Gilbertson, 2015). They are not just blocking fossil fuel development. They are invigorating traditional Indigenous forms of governance. They are building sustainable buildings, gardens and alternative power systems. They are training people from all over the world about decolonialism and effective activism. The major project of the last two years has been the building of a Healing Center where Indigenous youth, women and others come learn and practice traditional forms of healing. Their web page states Unist’ot’en camp “is not a protest or demonstration. Our clan is occupying and using our traditional territory as it has for centuries….Our homestead is a peaceful expression of our connection to our territory” (www.unistotencamp.com).

Gobby1 aug2016The Clan’s opposition to the proposed pipeline projects is based on the infringements of their rights and title as well as the impacts of pipelines on water and climate (Temper and Gilbertson, 2015). Their complete opposition to all pipelines not only is actively blocking the development of oil and gas infrastructure, but it is also “a powerful act of defiance and has generated support from environmentalists and climate-justice activists around the world. In this way the camp has become a potent symbol against extractivism” (Temper and Gilbertson, 2015).

The majority of the pipelines proposed to go through the Unist’ot’en territory are for natural gas to be transported from Alberta and northeastern BC to the coast for processing on the BC coast and export to foreign markets.

Liquid Natural Gas (LNG) has been marketed by the industry as the ‘clean fossil fuel’. Messages like “Natural gas is the cleanest burning fossil fuel and is being used throughout the world to reduce carbon dioxide emissions” are spread by LNG companies. Much of their messaging is misleading and scientifically untrue. Politicians like Christy Clark, BC premier repeat these untruths. While Fort McMurray burned this spring, she used the opportunity to promote LNG: “If there’s any argument for exporting LNG and helping fight climate change, surely it is all around us when we see these fires burning out of control” claimed Clark. This line of reasoning has its source in expensive marketing, not in factual information or science. Science, rather, tells us that by investing in fracking and LNG infrastructure as BC Premier would like to, BC would be locking itself into fossil fuel use and emissions levels above targets to keep global warming below 2 degrees Celsius.

I wonder what the public discourse around LNG would be if climate scientists had multi-million dollar budgets for marketing campaigns. How would this change political will, voting patterns, energy futures for Canada and the world? Industry marketing plays a profound role in the way energy and climate issues are unfolding. The people of Unist’ot’en know firsthand the effects of industry marketing on people and ecosystems. Together we want to figure out ways to counter this force. We may have scientific evidence and moral high ground on our side but how do we counter industries’ misinformation campaigns without million-dollar marketing budgets? What kind of messaging would help us affect real systems change? How can we use marketing without feeling creepy and coercive?

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These are just some of the questions we tackled in a day-long workshop I facilitated last month, on my second visit to the Action Camp. Over the winter I’d been researching counter-marketing, social marketing, guerrilla marketing, non-profit marketing and story-based strategy and more generally thinking hard about the benefits and drawbacks of marketing as a tool for social transformation. During the workshop, I presented some of the more promising tools I’d come across in my research and then we brainstormed and strategized. At the end of the day we had come up with a plan: 3 teams of people would work together during the coming months to design and implement 3 marketing strategies promoting real solutions to climate change! And so, we are embarking on an innovative experiment of collaboratively using and studying the tools of marketing to counter the damage done by the corporate marketing of the oil and gas industry.


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As a researcher, activist and concerned human being, I am excited to see what happens when the master’s tools are appropriated by the people and turned against him. I’ll end this blogpost with another quote that perhaps helps answer the challenge posed by the quote I opened with. “Change will come. As always, it is just a matter of who determines what that change will be” (LaDuke, 1999). To help tip the balance of power in Canada today – we need all the tools we can get our hands on.




Jennifer Gobby is an E4A Fellow at McGill University. She spends her summers in BC building, growing food, chopping wood and living in community.


For more information about the Unist’ot’en:

For more information about using marketing for social change:

Andreasen, A. R. (1995). Marketing social change. Jossey-Bass.

Del Gandio, J. (2013). Rhetoric for radicals: a handbook for 21st century activists. New Society Publishers.

Kotler, P., & Roberto, E. L. (1989). Social marketing. Strategies for changing public behavior.

LaDuke, W. (1999). All our relations: Native struggles for land and life. South End Press.

Lorde, A. (2003). The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. Feminist postcolonial theory: A reader, 25, 27.

Lozza, E. (2012). Social Marketing to Protect the Environment: What Works.

Miller, K. L. (2010). The nonprofit marketing guide: High-impact, low-cost ways to build support for your good cause (Vol. 10). John Wiley & Sons.

Margolis, J., & Garrigan, P. (2008). Guerrilla marketing for dummies. John Wiley & Sons.

Temper L., & Gilbertson T., (eds). Refocusing resistance to climate justice: COPing in, COPing out and beyond Paris, EJOLT report no. 23, 2015.

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