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The Real Reason Why SOPA Didn’t Pass: Marketing

I’d like to believe that the two recent controversial bills, SOPA and PIPA, were stopped because they were poorly written but the real reason had to do with the power of messaging and branding.

Let’s face it: bad laws are passed everyday. In 2009-2010, Congress passed 8,970 bills alone. Most of the time, things go by unnoticed. SOPA and PIPA had great intentions (even praised by their strongest opponents) to deter piracy but their problem had to do with messaging. Both bills had been making steady progress for months with bi-partisan support and hardly any opposition. However, during the last several weeks, things exploded online when major Internet companies such as Google, Wikipedia, and Facebook got involved. A lot of things were said about the bill that weren’t true…but by then, it didn’t matter. People were buying the new story: SOPA and PIPA would “break the Internet.”

This is what they did wrong from a marketing perspective:

  1. They didn’t share the stories of those affected by piracy. Some of the bill’s biggest supporters, the RIAA (Recording Industry Association of America) and MPAA (Motion Picture Association of America), vouched their support but the messaging came from their executive staff. They didn’t tell the story of the thousands of workers affected by piracy: film hands, aspiring writers, the struggling artist. People launched attacks against the entertainment industry’s wealthy while ignoring the possibility that multi-billion dollar Internet companies probably have their own lobbyists influencing legislation as well. People don’t mind hating a big corporation but it’s hard to dismiss the power of a single story.
  2. They Communicated in the Wrong Places. Nearly all of the messaging supporting SOPA were featured on industry sites (such as ASCAP and BMI) but that information wasn’t being shared much outside of that. On the other hand, anti-SOPA/PIPA messaging prominently featured on social media and Internet sites (Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, etc.), making it easy to spread quickly and effectively.
  3. They Focused on the Wrong Message. People don’t care about industries or companies, they care about themselves. When the entertainment industry talks about lost revenue or lost jobs, eyes glaze over (they’re tired of hearing that tale). It’s why piracy continues to rise. On the other hand, hen someone hears “the Internet will break” or that they could lose their favorite social media site, they begin to listen and more importantly, want to take action.
  4. The Brand Suffered but They Didn’t React. The bill supporters assumed that people would use reason and read the bills themselves (especially as they got updated throughout the process) but in reality, most people didn’t care enough to follow. They had one poor impression and it was enough. In the customer service industry, if manage negative touch-points aren’t managed, customers are lost. By then, it’s too little, too late. Many of the bill’s supporters began jumping ship simply because they didn’t want to be associated with SOPA or PIPA.

Even if the bills undergo major overhaul, I doubt they’ll get the support that they need. My recommendation would be to change the name (the brand) and begin with fresh messaging, highlighting the stories of the people who would be affected by its passage. Have independent artists reach out to their fans, show case budding directors and fashion designers. Show that it was more than the entertainment industry who had a stake. Share the a real story that people could relate to and spread.

Most of the bill sponsors involved never expected such a strong reaction since major laws are nearly ignored everyday. However, when you mess with the largest supply and delivery information services in the world, expect some sort of retaliation. In the end, it’s just business. But remember, a lot of spending, just like voting, is emotional and not necessarily rational. The story or idea that spreads and sticks is the one that wins.


Simon Tam is owner of Last Stop Booking, a full service agency that offers tour booking and music consulting services. Simon has appeared on stage at over 1,200 live events and has traveled North America presenting ideas about the music industry. Simon’s writing on music and marketing can be found at

Reader Comments (17)

I agree, the messaging didn't register.

Marketing needs to market socially and break the bill down
into easy to understand terms for the average Jane and Joe.

It will be a sunny day in Creative-Ville
when we can agree on a solution that slows piracy down to a red-light.

January 23 | Unregistered CommenterSTREET SPIRIT

Really? Maybe you're right - maybe an average Joe like me didn't actually understand what SOPA was all about. What I did understand though, is that SOPA would give the big guy even more leverage than what they already have. A team of lawyers like them is not possible for the little guy to afford - even a successful little guy (i have seen what their lawyers can do.. many times over). The principals are sound behind trying to stop piracy. This is probably not the way to execute it.

We're finally going in a direction where marketing influences are going to mean less and less for artists. That's a good thing. Let's stop being egotistical about being artists and we can probably fasten this process.

January 23 | Unregistered Commentertw3rp

Ridiculous. However mishandled the messaging, the threats posed by these bills were very real.

January 23 | Unregistered Commenterscottandrew

No, the real reason SOPA/PIPA crashed is because the Internet community had a correct account of the facts about how the network works, both technically and legally (safe harbors & third-party liabilities). It's always better to convince the public with the truth.

Former Sen. Chris Dodd expressed regret that SOPA/PIPA didn't get rammed through quietly before the alarm could be spread. As I have written many times over years: To the copyright industry, the Internet -- all of it -- is acceptable collateral damage.

I forget who expressed this: "Essentially all copyright regulation now becomes Internet regulation."

January 23 | Unregistered Commenterwallow-T

This very business perspective completely misses the point of the threat presented by SOPA (and currently presented by ACTA). This was about censorship; about the ways the bill could allow the average citizen to be ridiculously penalized for having 1 pirated song or TV episode; about how easy it could be for any even slightly unknown content to be blocked, while at the same time blocking a lot of perfectly legal content (and with basically no ability to protest or have any sort of recourse). THAT's what the protests were actually about.

January 23 | Unregistered CommenterCara

Hey everyone,

I know people feel very strongly about the bills. But like I mentioned in the opening statement, bills (controversial ones at that) get passed all the time without notice. For example, the Patriot Act, National Defense Authorization Act, Obama's "internet kill switch," etc. Some would even argue that DOMA was as well. However, the reason why these got passed without major hiccups (or a massive protest unseen prior to SOPA/PIPA) was the messaging wrapped around those bills.

Most people who were vehemently against SOPA/PIPA didn't even read the bills themselves.

January 23 | Unregistered CommenterSimon Tam

I was trying to keep an open mind when I was reading your article but then I read your bio which tells me your article is biased. You talk about jobs currently lost because of piracy and I empathize with those affected. However, if SOPA and PIPA passed a lot more jobs and livelihoods would be lost and destroyed. Are you aware of the number of internet businesses out there? In the hundreds of millions. If they passed this stupid bill, it would give the Government carte blanche to shut down a web business because of being suspected of violating SOPA-PIPA laws with no due process. It would also make it more expensive since ISP's would now add the costs of policing.

We should combat piracy but pass something that makes sense and not hurt more people. You are for SOPA-PIPA because it is hurting your industry. Once it no longer does, you could care less if it screws everyone else.

January 23 | Unregistered CommenterJon

There is very little that was said in this post that I agree with, but I do surprisingly find your main premise sound. Probably not in the way that you think, but we sorta agree. It was an extreme marketing failure that let to the failure of these deeply flawed bills. You speak of branding and messaging, but I have found that this is but one somewhat tangential aspect of marketing. The core of marketing, and the thing that failed here, and that no amount of lipstick will be able to fix, is getting the product right. You really need to understand the market that you are trying to address, you need to intently listen to what they need, then you provide that thing. Trust me, once you get that right, the branding and messaging stuff comes pretty easily. So yes, it was a marketing failure. It will still be a marketing failure if this thing gets re-spun and re-introduced a hundred times with "better branding".

There are fallacies in nearly every sentence in the post, and if this drags on I guess we can deal with them all. I would like to address the most egregious here, however. You said "In the end, it’s just business". Yeah, I don't think so. Seeing this as a struggle amongst large corporations is completely missing the point of what is happening. In the end, it is something extremely important that directly affects millions of people every day. Vast numbers of people use the Internet to do things that are largely outside of the narrow interests of any large corporation. It is a platform for sharing information, for sharing culture, for learning, for connecting and quite honestly living. While there are plenty of legacy industry players that view the network as another broadcast medium, that fashion themselves as gatekeepers and want to mold the internet into something that they can both understand and control, it is not going to happen. I would suggest that it is well past time for everyone involved in this misguided line of thought to accept the fact that they are in an extremely disadvantaged position, regardless of how important they think they are. It is time to understand the Internet, to embrace it, and to use it to build something that people want. The alternative is a fight that you can't win.

January 23 | Unregistered CommenterTodd McKinney

There shouldn't even be an entertainment industry. Art is created to share not to profit. The reason that mainstream entertainment is so bad is because of the fact that these artist are only creating for the sake of profit. Ask any jazz musician if you should buy their album and they'll say no give me a blank disc i'll burn it for you.

If I pay for something it had better be damn good. Not some crap movie with recycled footage or some POS pop song with 4 chords. Nobody is losing money from piracy. When someone downloads something, it doesn't take money out of the creators bank account. There will always be people who abuse the system but the majority should not have to suffer.

January 23 | Unregistered CommenterR.U. Kiddingme

When you pirate music, you hurt the artist.

Thankyou to all the commenters above! I would just like to add, I'm a new developing artist and I am about to fully embrace this challenge ahead of me to make my band financially self-sustainable. Think about Sweden and Stockholm, one of the leaders in living/innovation/life-style/happiness! They had a big challenge ahead of them and over the last few decades have done themselve's proud! Things change and these big corporations best get flexible or move out of the way all together.

The problem isn't just SOPA/PIPA, or all them other bills that get passed through without anyones notice. It's THE MAN. They're in full control, we didn't even vote them in for christ sake yet we let them make our decisions!? Absurd to the nth degree!

It's then them protecting the other big figures of our 21st century world....

I could put a lot more but I just ate and the oxygen is quickly leaving my brain and heading straight to my stomach.

Keep on creating guys!

January 24 | Unregistered CommenterMartinT

Amazing article, as an indie label owner i was sort of in the middle on this. I know how it is to illegally download music or a movie as I'm sure the majority of us do. But I also know how it feels to want to protect my artist's music from being bootlegged or copied with out getting the proper consent to do so. I think this is not over as yet, the war was won but not the battle. Major record labels have been trying to pass copyright infringement laws over the internet for a couple years now and will continue to strive to do so.

January 24 | Unregistered CommenterJKenyatta

Hey everyone,

A lot of interesting comments on here. Thanks for chiming in.

It's interesting to see how emotional people get about the bills - I believe it shows how much the anti-SOPA/PIPA marketing was effective (telling a story that stuck with people). In many discussions both within as well outside of the industry, I just presented what I thought the bills without directly saying that I was against them (which I was). However, people would get quite angry over my approach in trying to strip away the rhetoric about the bills and talk about the actual clauses contained (another discussion entirely).

January 24 | Registered CommenterSimon Tam

I would like to know what the author of this article feels wasn't true about the bills.

January 24 | Registered CommenterGenkai Yokomura

It very much is about business; tech companies simply don't want to pay for content, saying it's free to distribute and copy, yet content creators insist that content isn't free to produce.This conflict has been ongoing for over a decade. SOPA/PIPA is not and never was about sharing or censorship; those are lies, promulgated and promoted by the tech industry. It is patently obvious that a law to curb intellectual property hijacking is necessary and just; the underlying moral principle is that the artist gets to decide whether to sell or share her work.If you'd like an emotional story to illustrate the need for legislation, consider the O'Dwyer case; under the current law, he's fighting extradition to the United States, where the infringement he sponsored occurred, though his site is legal in Great Britain. Under SOPA/PIPA, his site links would simply be blacked out in US searches, so maybe he wouldn't have collected nearly $250k by providing links to pirated movies/TV shows.

January 25 | Unregistered CommenterMojo Bone

Heh, I think MartinT's link illustrates exactly why the entertainment industry loses (and will probably always lose) on messaging.

January 25 | Unregistered Commenterscottandrew

Some form of legislation is required but the full solution to Online Piracy is complicated and requires a lot more beyond just legislation. However, in the wars between the camps, I hope the problem itself doesn't get lost. I am an independent musician and I have also written about my perspective on my blog - - I hope other independent artists & content creators will do the same.

January 25 | Unregistered CommenterDevika Chawla

Thanks scottandrew.

I'd like to add this that someone posted on another website, not my words at all.

Trevin Wrote: "I think the music industry is actually to blame for their lack of adaptability. Markets & technology both change rapidly and instead of coming up with an innovative way to use file sharing technology and the web to their advantage, they use their resources to hire lobbyist and bully politicians into changing the law." @WebpageFX comment.

Also I would like to point out that the above comment COULD be perceived as content criminality due to me not asking for the permission to use said comment.

That then brings in another discussion, every piece of content, charachter from a word, the words, sentences, paragraphs, notes, links you link to, images, videos you upload all on Facebook are being used by them to profit in some way.

The internet needs to stay open, even just for the sake of being open because it will do one thing guarantee'd, it will OPEN peoples minds in an inumerable amount of ways.

Im not scientist or psycology expert but I'd like to tell you a little story.

At my last job, the customer's got treated like kings and queens and even went as far as buying me alcohol/chocolate etc for my birthday/christmas. This shows the job was getting done, yet my superiors who are un-educated and lucky to have their job did things JUST for the sake of doing them which led on to negative conversations between them and I and other work colleagues. I don't really know what I'm trying to say now, I have confused myself again.

Instead could you kindly sign this: Save The Internet

January 27 | Unregistered CommenterMartinT

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