Does Creative Activism Work? The Copenhagen Experiment

By: Stephen Duncombe and Silas Harrebye

It is a beautiful late afternoon Spring day in Copenhagen and on the Dronning Louises bridge that spans Peblinge lake and links the neighborhoods of City Centre in the East to Norrebro in the West, tourists wander aimlessly, workers return from late lunches or set out to early drinks, bicyclists (many of them, for this is Copenhagen) whiz by, and young people lounge on the benches or sit on the walls that line the bridge, enjoying the sun after a long, gray Scandinavian winter. Suddenly this idyllic, urban scene is interrupted by a loud noise. "Brrraaapp!" and then a few seconds later: “phhhhhffftttttttt, phhhhhffftttttttt,” followed by a thundering: “BraaaaaaaaAAApt.”

Loud fart noises continue emanating from a bright red sound system mounted on a bicycle frame and parked in the middle of the bridge. Over the sound system a large banner flies, and across a bright red and yellow background are the words: “This Shit is an Issue,” accompanying a large picture of a mound of cow dung. Positioned at strategic points in the middle of the bridge are four cows, standing erect on two feet, handing out colorful flyers to passersby that call for a tax on meat production to limit methane gas that is harmful to the environment. The people passing on the bridge have slowed down to watch the spectacle, and also their feet. For on the sidewalk, interspersed to create a minefield across the walkway, are little mounds of real cow dung, each with its own protest sign sticking out repeating the claim: “This Shit is an Issue.”

“What’s going on here?” was a question heard many times over the course of those three days. There were two ways to answer that question. The first: this is an activist intervention to convince people of the harmful effects of meat production on the climate. The second answer: This is “The Copenhagen Experiment,” the first, and so far only, public experiment comparing conventional and creative forms of activist interventions.

Creative forms of activism, drawing inspiration from the arts and popular culture, and utilizing story, sign, and spectacle, have become increasingly popular, both as a practice and as an object of study. Leveraging the affective qualities of the arts and the effective capabilities of activism, the practice has been embraced by artists looking to have social impact, activists operating on an increasingly media-rich political landscape, cultural institutions seeking civic relevancy, and civic organizations looking for creative ways to engage the public and change perspective, discourse, behaviour, and/or policy. The effectiveness of creative activism, and particularly its effectiveness compared to more conventional forms of activism, however, has been more an article of faith than an assertion of fact.

While there has been a great deal of descriptive and theoretical work done on creative activism, what is missing is an evidence-based, empirical study of the variable impact of creative vs. conventional forms of activism on a public audience in terms of ideas, ideals, and actions. To address this knowledge gap the report authors, both of whom are experienced creative activists as well as academic researchers, designed and staged The Copenhagen Experiment.

We staged the experiment to answer a very simple, but important question: Do creative forms of activism work better than more conventional ones?

What We Studied

Over the course of three days in 2018, the authors and their research team mounted multiple activist interventions around a current environmental issue on a popular and well-traveled bridge in the middle of Copenhagen, Denmark. Each day a conventional activist intervention: public speaking, petitioning, or flyering, was paired with a “creative” way of accomplishing the same task in a classic A/B experimental model. Volunteer observers watched interactions and took notes, interviewers stopped passersby to ask their opinions and gather contact information, a camera person filmed the interactions to capture micro-dynamics and general movement patterns, and a survey was sent out two weeks later to inquire about recall and resulting action.

The data for our analysis included 108 spot interviews, 30 observation sheets, petition and pamphlet tallies, hours of film footage of the events, and 25 follow-up survey responses. Our design allowed us to analyse differences and similarities on several levels relating to attention, thought, feeling, action, and memory.

The Findings

We found that a creative approach was more effective than conventional means at delivering upon traditional advocacy objectives like awareness, engagement, and receptiveness. In addition, the affective responses of most of those we interviewed and observed were decidedly more positive towards the creative interventions than the conventional methods. Creative activism also proved to be more memorable, and result in more follow-up actions on the issues.

Specific findings include:

  • Conventional activist methods of approaching individuals to talk to them about an issue, gather signatures, or receive a flyer are, in general, not positively perceived or received.

  • Words and phrases used by respondents to describe the different forms of interventions are markedly different. “Annoying,” “lecturing,” “predictable,” and “unnoticeable” were frequently used to describe our conventional forms of activist intervention.Words like “funny,” “different,” “surprising,” and “captivating” were used to describe the creative interventions.

  • The novelty, surprise, humor, and “productive confusion” of creative forms of activism disrupted people’s everyday automatic way of thinking about issues and activism, attracting attention, stimulating curiosity, and creating openings for new social interactions and political impressions.

  • In nearly every quantitative measure we employed: observations of interest, number of signatures gained on a petition, the quantity and speed of flyers handed out, the creative approach proved more successful than the conventional one in attaining the desired objectives.

  • Qualitative measures suggested a more positive immediate reception of creative forms of activism. Creative interventions also tended to be recalled more vividly, with better informational retention, and lead to more follow-up actions than conventional forms of engagement.

The data generated by this experiment points decisively to the conclusion that creative forms of street activism are more effective, in part because they are more affective, than conventional tactics. This is an important conclusion for social actors seeking to maximize the impact of civic engagement in public spaces, as well as scholars looking to understand the dynamics of effective and affective activism. With The Copenhagen Experiment we have also shown that the relative effect and affect of creative activism can be measured. We hope his challenges, and inspires, agents in the field to apply rigor in evaluating the effective and affective impact of even the most creative of activist interventions.

What’s Next?

As groundbreaking as this present study is, it has its limitations. The Copenhagen Experiment, was, after all, staged in Copenhagen, a social-democratic European city with a largely homogeneous population. The experiment was planned with the city, its demographics, and political culture in mind, and while we believe that its results are generalizable, in order to prove so it will be necessary to replicate the experiments in different contexts: with other populations, in different countries, in suburban and rural areas, and under different political systems.

There is also a more serious limitation with The Copenhagen Experiment: it studies how artistic tactics can meet conventional activist objectives. Again, we focussed on very concrete and measurable indicators such as attention, information, retention, reflection, knowledge sharing, and subsequent actions taken. What we did not test and measure is the political efficacy and afficacy of what art does best: provide new perspectives to view the world as it is and stimulate the human imagination to envision new possibilities of worlds to come.

We therefore plan to follow up and further develop our design. This will include staging an experiment in different demographic, geographic and political contexts, testing other types of artistic activism better attuned to stimulating the power of imagination, and applying a wider definition of artistic activism than the rather instrumental one focused on in this study.


For Full Research Report, including pictures, methodological appendix and bibliography, download the pdf