If you watched the Super Bowl, you probably noticed a curious, softened shift in advertisers' messages this year. Ford used Nina Simone's "I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to Be Free," a song about the civil rights movement, to hawk new cars, while Audi touted girl power to do the same. Airbnb's spot delivered the platitude that "we all belong," while 84 Lumber appeared to offer a pro-immigrant message—but in an interview with People magazine, CEO and owner Maggie Hardy Magerko said she supported President Trump's proposed border wall between the United States and Mexico. At a tumultuous time, brands have caught wind of the idea that marketing with a message can move units.
Moogfest, which takes over downtown Durham for the second time in mid-May, is joining those ranks. On February 6, the day after the Super Bowl, the festival issued a press release announcing that this year's iteration would feature a "protest stage." Quoting Martin Luther King Jr., denouncing HB 2, and praising the January 21 women's marches, the press release offered links to the ACLU of North Carolina and Equality NC but revealed little in the way of useful information about the protest stage's actual purpose or end game. Which raises the question: Is Moogfest trying to join the corporate masses seeking to cash in on bleeding hearts, or is the festival genuinely committed to effecting change in its home state?
The answer, at least right now, is tricky. Like last year, Moogfest's programming features different themes, which include Transhumanism, The Joyful Noise of STEAM, The Future of Creativity, and Techno-Shamanism, among others. In an interview with the website CLRVYNT earlier this month, the festival's creative director, Emmy Parker, said that the current volatile political climate made "Protest" an obvious theme choice for 2017. But she didn't elaborate much.
"We were trying to use the various elements provided by the festival to give urgency to these issues and concepts, so protest, as an idea, became the main stage. The festival opens that first day with programming around the theme of protest, and a lot of it will take place on that stage," the website quoted Parker as saying. (Parker declined the INDY's request for an interview.)
Representatives from the festival declined to comment further on the protest stage, saying they couldn't share additional details until the festival made its first announcements about nighttime programming in early March. That seems to suggest that whatever's going on at the protest stage is connected to the festival's ticketed events, rather than its free daytime programming, which is open to the public. (Asked directly whether the protest stage will be a ticketed event, Moogfest's publicist said she'd have more details soon.) Those nighttime tickets aren't cheap: a weekend pass costs $249 (you can upgrade to a $500 VIP pass), and there are no single-day ticket options. If you want to participate in Moogfest's protest, it appears, you'll have to shell out a hefty sum.
If that's Moogfest's strategy, it's one that's been proven to work—as those Super Bowl ads demonstrated. Jonathan Wisely, the executive creative director at the Raleigh-based communications firm Capstrat, notes that brands always want to connect with audiences based on perceived relevance. This year, they're doing that by hooking on to what everybody's talking about: the state of the nation, rather than single pop culture events or trends.
"It just so happens that the most talked-about events just happened to be more on the social side," he says. "Whether it's because of the travel ban, or whether it's because people are still feeling the sting of the election, it's very much on everybody's minds. I think that brands and advertisers see that as an opportunity to be relevant."
Moogfest, meanwhile, is trying to demonstrate its relevance to North Carolina's here-and-now through the lofty promise that it's pushing back against inequality. But even that claim feels weak.
When the festival didn't want to clarify its work with the protest stage, the INDY reached out to nineteen organizations to gauge the extent to which Moogfest had begun working with local activists and social-justice-minded groups—the very outfits that are already on the ground doing the work to which Moogfest claims it's committed. Those organizations included nationally affiliated groups such as Planned Parenthood South Atlantic, NARAL Pro-Choice NC, the Human Rights Campaign, and the ACLU, plus grassroots groups such as Triangle SURJ (Showing Up for Racial Justice), Durham Artists Movement, and the LGBTQ Center of Durham.
Of the dozen that responded by press time, none said that Moogfest had contacted them. Several, including Planned Parenthood South Atlantic, Girls Rock NC, and the new Come Out & Show Them, indicated that they'd be interested in collaborating with Moogfest. But even though they might be logical places for the festival to start, Moogfest had not gotten in touch with them.
Three more months remain until Moogfest starts, which doesn't leave the festival much time to flesh out its mission of protest. If Moogfest can manage meaningful collaborations with local organizations, then it has an opportunity to support progressive causes in a significant way. The festival is a mighty force with a lot of money behind it, and it can wield its power to encourage its affluent, out-of-town audience to make a real difference. But if the "protest" is merely a string of self-aggrandizing buzzwords, it doesn't take any deep listening for it to ring hollow.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Protest?"