How One Tiny “Mom and Pop” Activist Group in Ohio Run by Fun-Hating Religious Zealots Accomplished the Ultimate Goal in American Politics

It’s hard to believe now but the United States of America — the only country to put the words “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” as its founding slogan — actually managed to get a constitutional amendment passed that banned alcohol for close to 15 years from 1919 to 1933.

The decision took millions of Americans by surprise. But for one group, it was the culmination of a political plan that was three decades in the making.

The Anti-Saloon League (ASL) was created in 1893 with the mission of banning the selling and drinking of alcohol nationwide. And while it wasn’t the first activist organization to call for national prohibition, its founder, Reverend Howard Hyde Russell, discovered that the reason why the movement had failed was because no organization was solely dedicated to the cause by itself.

While it’s true that other organizations had tried to lobby for banning alcohol before the ASL, they had always put it on the “back-burner” when they decided that other issues were more important or realistic.

But Reverend Russell was not going to make the same mistake. He decided that the ASL would be the first group in America dedicated exclusively to one cause: banning booze (this was the first time anyone in history had created a “single issue advocacy” organization). And he would work with anyone and everyone across the political spectrum to accomplish that mission.

With that goal in mind, Russell and his top lieutenant, Wayne Wheeler, set about creating a mass marketing campaign dedicated to spreading the gospel of sobriety into people’s homes, churches, businesses, social clubs, and anywhere else they could.

The ASL started its own publishing company in 1909 next to its headquarters in Westerville, Ohio that would soon produce so much marketing material that it would make the League into a media empire (they produced and mailed over 40 tons of promotional materials PER MONTH, which made Westerville the smallest town to have a first-class post office in the country).

The league’s campaign literature ranged from cartoons and newspapers, to anti-alcohol encyclopedias, fliers, print advertisements, and even stories and songs celebrating sobriety!

The common thread that ran through all the League’s messaging always had three keys:

  1. Emotion: Speak to heart always (“Wanted: A Father; A Little Boy’s Plea”);
  2. Specificity: Always detail the real, concrete, and ugly negative effects at home and in society generally (“Alcoholic Drinks Helped Break Up 9,228 Homes Every Year [and] 184,568 in twenty years…Alcohol is an Enemy to the Home”);
  3. Vision: Give prospects a window where they can see the lives they want which you can give them (“Every Day Will be Sunday When The Town Goes Dry”).

Let’s take a moment to talk about that last plank, “vision.”

It sounds like one gigantic thing that is equally held and shared by everyone in a given market. Oftentimes, your prospects have diverging visions. But that doesn’t mean that your offer can’t meet the needs of many or most of them. It just means you have to target and tailor your message to bring out that particular type of prospect’s vision.

The ASL, which was founded and run mostly by evangelical Protestant Christians, had to do just that to get the critical mass of support it needed from a radically diverse society (most of which were not evangelicals) to pass the prohibition amendment.

Below is a quote from Ken Burns’ great documentary Prohibition (which I’ve referred to in the chapter on Al Capone) showing how the ASL was able to get much of the country onboard to the prohibitionist’s program:

“It was clear that millions of Americans had now come to support prohibition for all sorts of reasons. Democrats as well as Republicans; progressives as well as conservatives; free thinkers as well as churchgoers. Some of the richest industrialists in the country, including Andrew Carnegie and Henry Ford, backed prohibition because they believed alcohol undercut the output of their workers. The radical Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) were for it, too, because they thought alcohol was part of a capitalist plot to weaken the working man; so was Booker T. Washington because he believed alcohol undermined black progress, while hundreds of thousands of southern whites supported it as well — in part because they believed alcohol turned black people into brutes.”

Lesson: Whether your business sells products, services, political causes, or whatever, there is so much excellent marketing advice that you can take from the ASL.

One thing you can copy from them is to form, on whatever scale you can, a kind of informal “think tank” where you can educate your knowledge-hungry prospect as much as you sell to them so that you can become a trusted source — one that they can provide to their friends, family, associates, etc. with good ideas for solving the problem that only YOU and your business can solve.

Another is to become an “emotion-spraying machine,” filling your marketing with joy, excitement, drama, suspense, fear, desire, sex appeal, etc. As the late copywriting superstar Gary Halbert used to say: most advertisements suffer from way too little emotion!

© 2021 David Lowenthal Enterprises Ltd.

David Lowenthal is an independent direct response fundraising serving libertarian and other freedom-loving nonprofits.

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