The Purple Project for Democracy wants to restore faith in ‘the American way.’ Bob Garfield explains how, exactly
If the creators of something called the Purple Project for Democracy have their way, come November their color and their message will be entirely unavoidable.
Formally launching just in time for the Fourth of July, Purple calls itself “a non-partisan coalition, campaign and movement” that is focusing on teaming up with media organizations and (if all goes as planned) brands, “to rediscover and recommit to our democratic values and institutions.”
It’s stirring to life under the umbrella of the non-profit, nonpartisan National Conference on Citizenship with initial support provided by the Brookings Institution. Content partners including The Washington Post, WYNC Studios, The Houston Chronicle, The San Francisco Chronicle and the Kennedy Center have signed on, along with a diverse range of think-tanky, trade and academic organizations such as Arizona State University, the Association of Magazine Media, the Freedom Forum and the Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation and Institute. The various participants plan to spend the rest of the summer and much of the fall devising ways to execute a month-long pro-democracy media blitz across media and brand channels set to kick off November 1.
Among Purple’s co-organizers at the human level is Bob Garfield, the journalist, author and co-host of WNYC’s “On the Media” (and, longtime readers may recall, Ad Age’s fearsome advertising critic from 1985 to 2010). His fellow co-organizers are Rebecca Winthrop of the Brookings Institution, Yoram “Jerry” Wind of The Wharton School and Sterling Speirn of the National Conference on Citizenship—but so far Garfield has been the most publicly vocal about what Purple is all about, starting with a guest column in this morning’s USA Today titled “When celebrating July 4th this week, remember that democracy is a core principle.”
Purple, per the mission statement on its website, has the goal of “restoring faith in the American way.” Which is both admirably ambitious and insanely ambitious. To help make sense of the master plan, Ad Age spoke with Garfield on the eve of Purple’s launch.
(This conversation has been lighted edited for space and clarity.)
Tell me how you personally got sucked into this—involved with this.
I got a phone call from Jerry Wind at The Wharton School; we collaborated on the creation of the Media Future Summit, which was merely about trying to save the media economy, and especially journalism. And he and a colleague at Brookings had been wringing their hands over a bunch of survey data points that pointed to not just a drop in trust for democracy and its institutions, but a precipitous drop. Plummeting. You know, a spiraling vortex of ruin. Across all demographics. And with some evidence that there’s some sympathy out there for autocratic government, army rule, you name it. Really horrifying survey results. And it was not isolated to one survey, it’s across the board.
And they were saying, “There must be something we can do, what can we do?” Anyway, we got talking. And the upshot of the conversation was that there’s a lot of people doing a lot of really good work in the area of civic engagement, civic literacy, media literacy and so forth. You know, more than 100 organizations creating sometimes excellent, provocative content. But No. 1, in the aggregate, it obviously hasn’t worked, because look where we are. Because it has no critical mass. I mean, it’s just so fragmented. It’s so ad hoc.
And we wondered what would happen if we could create that critical mass. If we could essentially brand the notion of civic education, civic literacy, media literacy, in a kind of hearts-and-minds campaign of the sort that we’re usually running in the Middle East. But, you know, why not do it here for Americans to rediscover the values of truth, justice and the American way? To learn about it, to have some de-mythologizing going on, and genuinely to reacquaint people with what makes us not North Korea.
And that’s what Purple is. It is just a branding of the all the stuff that we kind of learned and stopped thinking about. And which should make us really quite excited about the history of the American democratic experiment—and its benefits, certainly, as compared to authoritarian states all around the world.
It is not meant to whitewash the sins of American history, historical or contemporary. That’s not what it’s all about. It is not Pollyanna. It is not nationalistic—“America, love it or leave it.” It is none of those things. It is just about cherishing the things that should be cherished. And those are the core values and institutions of liberty and democracy.
Right in the name, of course, there’s a sense of bipartisanship—purple, blending blue and red. How do you bridge the gap between wanting to be nonpartisan and the obvious subtext here, which is that we have an executive branch that has very actively undermined trust in certain institutions—especially the media?
The Purple Project for Democracy is not meant to address our political circumstances. Which are not to be ignored—and in my day job, I certainly don’t ignore them. But this really isn’t about contemporary politics. We actually fought, we had long arguments, about whether we should even use Purple as our name, because it suggests sort of electoral equilibrium. And we’re not concerned about this election, or the next one, or the next one per se. We are concerned about hearts and minds for the fundamentals of American democracy. So in terms of the project itself, it’s actually very simple for us. Politics and policy have no part in it.
Now, if I had my way, you know, I have a lot of political and policy ideas and preferences that in my day job, and in my personal life, I am not shy about, right?
You’re saving all that for ‘Garfield for Mayor,’ ‘Garfield for Governor’...
[Laughter] Yeah, you know, and my next book and everything else. And of course, my weekly work on my [radio] show—that’s when you find out where I personally stand on all sorts of issues regarding our contemporary politics.
So working on Purple, you’re compartmentalizing.
I have to. First of all, I have to compartmentalize for myself, because I can’t let one bleed into the other. There’s also the fact that because this is so explicitly nonpartisan, there has to be a gigantic, impregnable firewall between my personal politics and this project. And there is. None of our content partners is permitted to let political ideology, partisanship or even policy ideas seep into the content they produce.
So give me a quick rundown of what happens from the consumer point-of-view come November.
Our goal is that you, as a consumer, in the month of November, will not be able to avoid Purple. That it will be in your newspapers and in your magazines and in your video games and in your streaming movie feed and your Pandora...
And how are you going about achieving that scale?
Well, what we do is we approach trade associations representing newspapers and magazines and, you name it, every channel of media—so we’re trying to get them on our side. And then we approach individual papers, magazines, producers, networks and so on, and say to them, “We want you to address democracy or democratic values, in any way, shape or form that you believe is suitable for your editorial ethos and for your audience. You do it and you distribute it as you ordinarily do, you do it at your expense, and you do it for the sake of your audience. And you may do it co-branded as Purple or not, as you see fit. But the point is, you have to create content anyway, and for this one month we want you to devote some of your efforts, your editorial efforts, to issues of democracy.”
How much of an uphill battle has that been, given that there’s plenty of other demand for that media space, particularly as the campaign cycle heats up?
It’s hard—actually mainly just because there are just so many doors to knock on. So it is really time-consuming. It’s not a trivial exercise.
Would you say the partners you have on board at launch are sufficient to open a diverse set of doors, or are you working to expand that group?
You get The Washington Post, which attracts someone else. And National Geographic is doing their November issue and it’s devoted to democracy. So people say, “Oh, well, good for them, we should consider it too.” And the Association of Magazine Media, we have their support. And so you just pick them off one by one, one after the other. And that’s the process.
Is part of the goal to suck some of these organizations devoting pages or airtime or whatever into the Purple organization itself? How much do you want to expand that coalition, as you call it?
I want to expand it exponentially.
So if you have 100 or 200 media organizations joining The Washington Post et al, you would be happy with that.
If I don’t have 200, I will be in despair. Look, I think that this could either be huge, or it could be modest, but it will be noticeable. We may not achieve ubiquity, but that’s certainly my goal: ubiquity. If I have it my way, in November you will not be able to open the fridge, literally, without encountering Purple. It’s going to be everywhere.
Wait, it’s going to be on that built-in screen thing on the door of my Samsung smart fridge?
That’s the plan.
Because I don’t have one of those yet.
[Laugher] Actually, I would much prefer to be on your Coke can, you know what I mean? Part of the plan is to attract brand sponsors.
As long as you’re not on the milk carton. “Have you seen Purple?”
[Laughter] Yeah, I want to be on a Coke can. I do not want to be on a milk carton.
So what’s the process for creating the content that people will see across these hundreds of channels?
This is so highly distributed. The Purple organization not only doesn’t dictate content, we have no say or participation in the production of it. So The San Francisco Chronicle is doing, I believe, sort of a radical transparency [series about] how its stories are made for that period of time—something along those lines. The Washington Post, I think, is doing videos about the journalism process. And I just don’t know what many of the other individual content partners are going to do.
You know, they have pinky-sworn not to do anything that looks partisan. And beyond that, I am going to leave it to every single content partner, and there will be hundreds of them, to decide how they want to tell the democracy story. And if it’s about stories from the First Amendment, or about how a certain law of the land became the law of the land, if it’s a look behind the scenes of an authoritarian regime in North Korea or Russia or Turkey or Venezuela or Nicaragua or the Philippines, to show you what life looks like in the absence of press and personal freedom—I don’t know, however they want to skin that cat is fine by me.
Given how distributed this process is, how crowd-sourced it is, are you willing to threaten pinky-amputation for anybody that gives their Purple content a sort of partisan cast? And you’re like, “Ah, that’s not what we wanted!” Where are you on the enforcement front for the sake of [Purple] brand consistency?
There’s really no enforcing mechanism. This whole thing is built on mutual devotion and good faith, right? We ask them to let us know in advance what they’re doing, in case we want to, you know, have a conniption and say “No, this is actually exactly not what Purple is.”
Even something as benign as a get-out-the-vote effort is not a Purple thing. We do want to talk about what voting means. We want to talk about what not having the vote means. But you know, we’re not, like, “Go register.” Because that is, I think, perceived in this day and age as a pro-Democratic [party] position. I’m not personally happy that it is now a partisan issue—but it is, and therefore it’s kind of a no-fly zone for us. There are a lot of no-fly zones, but there’s plenty of room to talk about democracy without carrying the water for one party or the other.
So you have this big push in November, but until then, in the short-term, what will consumers see?
Consumers will see very little from Purple until November. The most important things that are going to happen over the next four months is we’re going to collect more and more partners who will be busy creating the content, and we hope that very shortly we will have some brand partners. The [sponsorship] money is not unimportant to us—but the most important thing is the amplification of the message. Because there isn’t a media organization in America with the reach of a consumer brand. Because they really are ubiquitous. So it’s pretty essential that we have brands behind us.
At Purple we have a particular brand we call “mindful patriotism,” which means it is not reflective, it is thoughtful. And it means really thinking hard about the beauty of this American experiment and not ignoring what happens when things go wrong. But, you know, not throwing the democracy baby out with the political-crisis bathwater.
I know brands are politics-averse. But I am pretty sure—in fact, I’m going to go out on a limb here and say I am 100 percent certain—that there is no proposition more brand-safe than honoring our democracy. I mean, this is as patriotic as it gets.
Find out more at the Purple Project for Democracy.