Change.org fuels grass-roots campaigns with social media

September 9, 2011

Two weeks ago, Lauren Todd, a New York-based activist at a community organization, clicked on a friend’s Facebook status. It linked to a girl’s T-shirt on sale at JC Penney’s online store. The shirt, in garish glitter decorated with hand-drawn hearts and flowers, read, “I’m too pretty to do my homework, so my brother has to do it for me.”

Todd was not amused. “It was so sexist, with so many stereotypes and so blatant. It wasn’t even trying very hard to cover it up.”

She had heard of a Web site, Change.org, where people could submit complaints and solicit signatures. She thought perhaps she could gather up some support and send a message to the head of JC Penney that people do not want to buy products that demean women.

Within 13 hours of Todd posting her petition online, JC Penney pulled the shirt from its online store.

JC Penney is not alone in its response to the social petition site. Change.org has recently fueled major campaigns that have inspired action from state legislators, Sesame Street and even Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton. Although some detractors deride online activism as “slacktivism” for requiring less effort, Change.org is combining traditional grass-roots activism campaigns with the power of social media. If Change.org gets behind a campaign, site employees will also contact the media and provide other, real-world support and training.


Its not alone in its efforts; Facebook has a Causes section and Avazz.org/en is a similar worldwide petition site. But Change.org has gained widespread attention this summer, fueling some of the most talked-about causes. It was a big driver behind Caylee’s Law, a movement started in the wake of the Casey Anthony trial, in which a Florida mother did not report her 2-year-old daughter, Caylee, missing to the police. If passed, the law would require parents report their child missing within 24 hours. A petition on the site gained over a million signatures and inspired 22 state lawmakers to take up the issue.

A petition for Bert and Ernie to marry gained enough media steam that Sesame Street took a stand on the Muppets’ sexuality (they are asexual, for the record). Clinton took up the banner of women fighting for the right to drive in Saudi Arabia after a petition on the site got tens of thousands of signatures.

Todd acknowledges her petition was just one influence. People flooded JC Penney’s Facebook wall with angry messages and left negative reviews of the shirt on the store’s Web site. In the end, Todd’s petition received only about 1,600 signatures. But it drove media outlets a hook to hang the story on, and when the store finally decided to take down the shirt, the first person they contacted was Todd, apologizing in an e-mail for the inclusion of the shirt in the lineup. A JC Penney spokeswoman later confirmed that officials sent her the note and said they would be reviewing how the store’s professional buyers choose products.

Todd attributes the success of her campaign in part to its “digestibility” via social media: an easy-to-share link to an image that prompts an immediate reaction. It’s also possible that the media found Todd’s message more palatable than those in other pro-women petitions on the site that have received less coverage, such as the accusations against a major retailer that a supervisor raped employees in a foreign factory.

Todd said she is glad to have played a role in raising awareness about the messages corporations send to children through their products.

“You can’t tackle an issue like sexism in one blow. You have to start pointing out examples … attacking the individual issues.”

Even if change comes one click at a time.

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