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October 12, 2011

Why the Occupy Wall Street Protests Will Matter

Zombies on stilts eating money. Garbage bags sealed with neckties. Drums and guitars and dramatic mass arrests. The protests known as Occupy Wall Street have been great performance art, but will they change the political equation?

The protesters' Web site boldly claims, "We are using the revolutionary Arab Spring tactic to achieve our demands," which certainly sounds serious. Most Wall Street pundits have dismissed them based on their insipid interviews and lack of actual demands. At first look, I agreed-after thoroughly surfing their Web site, the only demand I could find was for pizza. There is a section marked "Donate to us," where you can enter your credit card number and click to send them a pie (non-meat options preferred). Aristotle said that hunger is the father of revolution, but for this rebellion, the reverse appeared to be true.

Beyond free pizza, I wondered whether there was a deeper motivation behind all the noise, and so I began to do some research. The London Telegraph thought there wasn't much more to it, calling Occupy Wall Street "little more than a fashion show masquerading as a political movement, a gathering of super-cool yoof who want to show off how hopping mad they are about bankers and war and pollution and stuff..." Not understanding what a "yoof" is, I switched to American sources and continued reading.

The revolution was launched in July by a Canadian leftist magazine called Adbusters, which proclaims a mission of "cutting through the fog of mental pollution with incisive philosophical thrusts and visual mindbombs." Within Adbusters, the idea for the revolution has been attributed to a 69-year-old aesthete named Kalle Lasn, author of the 2006 coffee-table book "Design Anarchy." His first visual mindbomb dropped on New York was a beautiful poster of a ballerina balanced on the famous Wall Street Bull statue, with text above her reading, "What is our one demand?" The poster directed people to a Twitter page, which explained that the one demand would be chosen at a "General Assembly" in New York. After the civil disobedience group Anonymous tweeted the poster, it quickly went viral, resulting in all the yoof hanging out in the park a month or so later.

But a month into the protests, I still could not find out what their one demand was. Mr. Lasn, the father of the revolution, has stated in interviews that he believes a financial transaction tax could be The One, but due to the anarchist nature of the movement he created, he has a limited ability to pull strings. And so I decided to go straight to the heart of it all and sit in on a General Assembly in Zuccotti Park. After listening to quite a few rambling speakers, surrounded by a few dozen bored attendees who were only half-listening, I think it's quite unlikely that Occupy Wall Street will ever settle on the one demand, or for that matter decide much of anything.

And so we have something interesting that's evolved: Occupy Wall Street has become the protest equivalent of a very valuable corporate shell company. They have substantial assets: Thousands of employees working for free. Celebrity spokespeople. Web sites that receive millions of hits. Franchises popping up in Boston, San Francisco and hundreds of other locations throughout the country. Media exposure and a growing brand awareness that would make a marketing executive drool. Occupy Wall Street Inc. (eventual ticker: OWS) has everything in place to package, market and distribute a product. Now there is only one thing preventing them from making massive sales to the American public: They don't know what they are selling.

Any junior-level M&A banker worth his weight in cuff links knows how to create value in this situation-you marry the powerful brand with some under-marketed products. And that is what we're starting to see happen. Unions are showing up at OWS marches, trying to convince the media that what the protesters really want is for the Government Workers 709 to get better dental coverage. Members of Congress are coming out of the woodwork to "sympathize" with the protesters, saying that what the kids really want is another stimulus plan. Even the Iranian Foreign Ministry tried to jump in on the OWS brand, issuing a statement condemning "the crackdown on the protesters of the Occupy Wall Street movement" on the Brooklyn Bridge and demanding a human rights investigation.

Iran aside, the pronounced piling-on causes real risk to Wall Street. As long as the group's message remains a blank canvas on which to paint, anyone with a gripe about anything will seek to attach themselves to OWS's growing brand, and then every gripe becomes rebranded as an anti-Wall Street gripe.

Filmmaker Michael Moore said in an interview with Keith Olbermann that he envisioned OWS would next spread to college campuses, which he thought were ripe for anti-Wall Street protests due to the crushing student loans many kids graduate with today, which he blamed on Wall Street greed. I couldn't fathom the mechanism for how Wall Street could have been responsible for the college tuition increases of the past decades-did brokers charge too much when executing trades for college endowment funds? Is that what drove up tuition 500 percent in the last 20 years? But identifying the underlying cause of college tuition increases is irrelevant. Tents will pop up on quads, anti-Wall Street signs will be written, and the general public will see the protests and come away with a vague sense that Wall Street has something to do with high tuition. 

The New York Times wrote in a recent editorial that the "chattering classes" should stop "complaining that the marchers lack a clear message and specific policy prescriptions." The writers then outlined four policy demands of which they were confident would "address the grievances of the protesters." It's a smart marketing move-no one gets excited when the New York Times opinion page calls for more progressive taxation for the umpteenth time. But if they can attach it to the OWS brand, it suddenly seems fresh and relevant.

Look for many more groups to claim they are speaking for the protesters and try to co-opt their brand. The irony is that for the protesters, losing control of their message is actually a good thing. If they choose a few crazy policy demands, they will almost certainly achieve nothing. But by focusing on what they've proven to be great at-namely branding, imagery and recruitment-and then leaving the policy demands to whoever latches onto their brand, OWS may give a considerable boost to a large number of "progressive" issues.

So while the protesters may not have any demands themselves, don't write them off. They may not have a realistic policy agenda, or any agenda beyond hanging out and eating free pizza. But they have created a brand and captured America's attention, and the "visual mindbomb" they represent will change the political equation.

       
Dan Mathisson, a Managing Director and the Head of Electronic and Program Trading at Credit Suisse, is a columnist for Traders Magazine. The opinions expressed in this column are his own, and do not necessarily represent the opinions of the Credit Suisse Group or Traders Magazine.
      
      

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