Just Stop Oil’s Van Gogh stunt shows that in activism, timing is everything

The absurdity of their act complemented the chaotic major headlines of the day, so like it or not, this generation know that for their activism to have clout, it must be timely

Paul Springer
Saturday 15 October 2022 15:29 BST
Just Stop Oil protestors throw soup over Vincent Van Gogh masterpiece in National Gallery

Yesterday’s Just Stop Oil protest at London’s National Gallery was another reminder that the good old “PR stunt” is alive and well.

This latest protest pushed Just Stop Oil’s “civil disruption” tactic to a new extreme by smothering Van Gogh’s world-famous Sunflowers painting in tomato soup. While we await news of any possible damage (the painting is actually sealed behind glass), just by targeting a globally recognised painting, the activists have guaranteed its global newsworthiness.

In recent weeks, the group have continued their pattern of shock and awe tactics, which have so far included gluing themselves to roads, motorways, bridges, buildings and vans, typically during rush hour. Much of the UK press has reported on those impacted by the stunts. However, the activists are pushing for broader awareness of their existence and the cause, so in their case, all publicity is good publicity – positive or not.

If the group’s warnings of fossil fuel dependency and climate destruction were ignored by the public and politicians in the past, they certainly resonate more today as the cost of living crisis has directly impacted millions of hard-working Brits. During the stunt, one of the activists even said: “The cost of living crisis is part of the cost of oil crisis. Fuel is unaffordable to millions of cold, hungry families. They can’t even afford to heat a tin of soup.”

Like it or not, this generation of activists know that for their activism to have clout, it must be timely. The simple act of splattering an iconic, priceless painting in one of the UK’s leading cultural institutions is a headline in itself, but the current chaos in the UK made it ripe for a media metaphor and has given the stunt more publicity. The absurdity of their act complemented the chaotic major headlines of the day – the sacking of a chancellor, an economic U-turn, spiralling markets and waning faith in the government. There is a wonderful irony in that the value of Van Gogh’s Sunflowers might actually increase, because, right now, it’s of major world relevance again.

Any seasoned behavioural specialist or marketer will tell you that the worst thing you can do as an influencer is to be bland. Any head-turning method to garner attention will never win all hearts and minds. But to provoke and get a reaction, to start a debate, ignite movements and get to the heart of an issue can cost millions in promotion, or, as in this instance, be a well-timed symbolic act.

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In other words: it’s OK to be a little divisive. PR stunts are not the end goal. Just Stop Oil’s stunt is a jolting, momentum-starting tactic to ensure that their message remains at the top of the news agenda, despite everything else that’s happening at the moment. This maximum impact using minimum means method isn’t anything new. Who can forget Fathers 4 Justice’s superhero Batman scaling the Buckingham Palace balcony? Or Greenpeace’s “Who voted for this?” protest at the Conservative Party conference in Birmingham earlier this month?

But as with everything, there’s a catch: PR stunts can only get you so far. They can embolden your core audience, but they can further entrench differences too. The more newsworthy and controversial your stunt, the less willing those beyond your circle of influence could be to step up and support your goals. You only have to scan Twitter to see that while many people can deal with a blocked road and mild civil disobedience, vandalism of a treasured piece of art may have crossed the line.

Just Stop Oil have achieved a short-term injection of visibility, and politically, they were bang on the money. The question some may ask though, is now that Just Stop Oil have upped the stakes in dramatic action, what headline-grabbing stunt can they do next?

Professor Paul Springer is Director of the School of Communication at Falmouth University.

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