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The Book-Burning Campaign That Saved a Public Library

The Book-Burning Campaign That Saved a Public Library
Courtesy of the Leo Burnett agency

Another day, another strange saga from the small city of Troy, Michigan. Late last year local officials turned down $8.5 million in free federal money for a transit center. (City council members eventually approved a scaled-back project.) Weeks later news emerged that the city's tea party mayor, Janice Daniels, made an anti-gay comment in public, again.

Now we learn that it took a book-burning campaign to save the city's library. Well, kind of.

After the recession hit, Troy, like so many municipalities, made some major cuts to its public spending. One unfortunate victim of the budget line was the Troy Public Library. In 2009, the Troy library was named a top ten facility for its population class (under 50,000). By February 2010, Troy residents had voted down a tax increase that would have saved its funding.

In November of that year residents defeated yet another proposal to maintain funding for the library. The building was given just enough money to function as a storage facility until the operation shut down. They even set a closing date: June 30, 2011.

Strange thing is, when the people of Troy were asked outside the ballot booth whether they'd be willing to pay for their library, they overwhelmingly said they yes. According to one survey, 72 percent of Troy residents wanted to keep the library's funding level or even increase it [PDF]. Only 20 percent wanted its funding cut to some degree.

What was happening, according to library advocates, was thanks to a group called Troy Citizens United. The anti-tax organization contested any public proposal that included a tax increase, regardless of its purpose. Among the 19 percent of eligible city voters who turned out for these ballots, Troy Citizens United evidently held major sway.

In May of 2011, just weeks before the library's demise, the city council delayed the closure long enough to let residents cast one last ballot. The vote was scheduled for August 2. This time the proposal on the table called for a 0.7 percent tax increase — enough to fund the library for 5 years.

True to form, Troy Citizens United — represented at public debates by soon-to-be-mayor Janice Daniels — opposed the proposal on anti-tax grounds. But this time they were joined in their opposition by a committee called Safeguarding American Families, which said it was rooting for the vote to lose so it could throw a book-burning party once the library closed.

Yeah that's right. A book-burning party.

Safeguarding American Families printed up signs that said: "Vote to close Troy library Aug. 2nd, Book burning party Aug 5th." They planted them on lawns. When the signs got torn up, they replaced them with new ones. They took out an ad in the Troy Times for a clown and an ice cream vendor, to serve as additional entertainment. They started a Facebook page and a Twitter account ("There are 200,000 reasons to close the Troy Library. They’re called books. #BookBurningParty").

Needless to say some people got a little angry. They left comments on the committee's social media sites like "You people are sick" and "This is disgusting" and "Cheap imbeciles" and the like. Local leaders took notice. Then newspapers. Then TV stations. Everyone filed the story under fact.

Actually it belonged in fiction. The whole thing was a hoax. Safeguarding American Families was an invention of the Leo Burnett advertising agency, which had been hired to create a blitz media campaign that would encourage voters to turn out and approve the library-funding proposal. Just before the election, Safeguarding American Families revealed its true message: "A vote against the library is like a vote to burn books."

Leo Burnett says its goal was to change the conversation from taxes to libraries. Sure enough, come August 2, voter turnout hit 38 percent and the library proposal passed with 58 percent of the ballot. The ad agency, which pulled off the whole stunt on a donated budget of about $3,500, recently won a 2012 Gold Effie award — given to exceptional marketing campaigns — for its efforts. Somewhere, Ray Bradbury is smiling.

Not everyone appreciated the ruse. One library employee was upset the group took credit for swinging public opinion and said it had done little but create even more "divisiveness." (The Troy Public Library had no direct involvement with either Safeguarding American Families or the book-burning hoax.) A spokesperson for Leo Burnett tells Atlantic Cities that residents seemed to appreciate the satire and the fact that the end goal was achieved: "Most of Troy’s residents are just happy their library survived."

Here's a brief video of the entire campaign:

Eric Jaffe is a contributing writer to The Atlantic Cities and the author of A Curious Madness (2014) and The King's Best Highway (2010). He lives in New York. All posts »

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