You want to have a successful cultural movement? You need an iconic moment--that photo or video clip that distills your complex narrative into one inspiring, defining visual.
The lone man who stopped a column of Chinese tanks armed with nothing more than two shopping bags and a titanium pair symbolized the courage of the Tiananmen Square protesters in 1989.
"Native American" Iron Eyes Cody launched the environmental movement of the early 1970's with a single tear. Sure, it was staged. Many of our cherished cultural movements are.
In this instance, the role of "the Indian" (we called them Indians back then) was played by Italian American actor Expera Oscar de Corti. His tear was portrayed by a dab of glycerin. And, unless I miss my guess, a pair of Keds stood in for Expera's moccasins (see for yourself at 00:44)
More realistically, the anguish of the 1960's anti-war movement was captured by the Pulitzer-winning photo of the Kent State student who had just been gunned down by a National Guardsman.
It was this photo, in fact, that inspired Donny Deutschto suggest last month that the Occupy Wall Street movement needed a similar "climax moment of class warfare somehow played out on screen that ... articulates this clash."
Not that they hadn't tried. Professional activist Charles Lenchner urged the Occupiers to "push youngest/oldest to the front lines ... This is a battle over images, not just over the park." But even with all that planning, the iconic moment eluded them.
Sure, they had the "let-them-drink-Cakebread" video of some one-percenters sipping champagne and waving to the protesters from a Wall Street balcony. And there was the photo of that performance artist who was "occupying" a cop car instead of a bathroom. (You'll have to google that yourself.) But nothing caught on. Until now.
Meet Lt. John Pike, a.k.a. Sgt. Pepper. Little did Lt. Pike know when he was lacing up his boots Sunday morning that by day's end he was going to be the star of the meme heard 'round the world.
Apparently, when the protesters refused to "respect his authoritah," Pike's pique got the better of him, and he began pepper-spraying them like weeds.
The video and photo spread across the globe in seconds. Minutes later, memes of the photo were popping up all over the Internet. There were even memes of memes. (You have to check this out.) In a mere 24 hours, the National TV had warmed up and the Red and Blue Networks were spinning the story ... out of control in some cases.
FOX News anchor Megyn Kelly described pepper spray to "a food product, essentially," inspiring her own meme-thology. Meanwhile, closeted one-percenter Michael Moore, on MSNBC, comparedthe pepper spray incident to the defiant act of the tank man in Tiananmen Square.
Whether you believe the students were inconvenienced by a condiment or assaulted by an AK-Jalapeno, Moore was right about one thing: this was "an iconic moment in this Occupy Wall Street movement."
The lesson: Iconic images aren't just for protests anymore. The competition for the nation's limited mental bandwidth is fierce. If you want to reach their hearts and minds, you've gotta catch their eyes.