Move the problem up the list

A view from Dave Trott: Move the problem up the list

Vulcan, West Virginia isn’t really a town – it’s too small.

It was built in the coal-mining boom of the 1950s, but by the 1970s it was a shell of itself – just 20 families lived there.

Vulcan was next to the Tug river.

One side was West Virginia; the other side was Kentucky.

The children had to cross the river to get to school, but the bridge was so old and rotten it had collapsed.

So the children had to illegally climb over a padlocked railroad fence and then scramble under freight cars to get to school.

One child lost part of his leg doing this.

The families elected John Robinette as "mayor", to speak for them.

He asked the officials of Mingo county if they’d build a bridge.

They said they had bigger problems.

So he asked the state officials of Kentucky and West Virginia.

They said they had bigger problems.

So he asked the government in Washington DC.

They said they had bigger problems.

It became clear to Robinette what his competition was – it was these bigger problems.

He had to elevate the bridge up the list of problems somehow.

At this time, 1977, just about the only problem anyone cared about was Russia.

This was the height of the Cold War.

Each side was looking for any propaganda advantage over the other.

Robinette realised there was no point in complaining to the people at the bottom.

They just kept ignoring him.

He needed to provoke the people at the top – that should get their attention.

So he wrote to the Russian embassy in Washington DC.

He told them the story about the poverty-like conditions the people of Vulcan, West Virginia were living in.

He told them America couldn’t even afford to build a bridge.

He knew that Russia had a foreign aid budget for impoverished countries.

He asked if the Russian foreign aid budget could help build a bridge where America couldn’t afford to do it.

The Russians knew this would be a major propaganda coup.

They immediately sent a reporter, Iona Andronov, to visit Vulcan.

He could write the story about how the US couldn’t support its own people.

How the poor people of America were crying out to Russia for help.

But the Russian embassy had to get permission from the US State Department before making the trip.

The US government wanted to know why they were going to the middle of nowhere.

When they found out about Vulcan’s bridge, things began happening.

This could embarrass the US worldwide.

The government told the state to fix it, NOW.

The state told the county to fix it, NOW.

And, within a few hours, Robinette was notified that $1.3m ($5.2m today) was approved to build a new bridge for Vulcan.

Suddenly all those bigger problems went away.

Because Robinette had found a way to elevate his little problem above all the others.

Which is what a creative person does – that’s our job.

We don’t keep competing inside a competitive set where we can’t win.

We change the competitive set, change the perspective.

So that, in a different context, something unimportant becomes very important.

Dave Trott is the author of Creative Mischief, Predatory Thinking and One Plus One Equals Three.

Dave Trott recommends

Placebo advertising

Read more

Start Your Free 30-Day Free Trial

Get the very latest news and insight from Campaign with unrestricted access to, plus get exclusive discounts to Campaign events.

Become a subscriber


Don’t miss your daily fix of breaking news, latest work, advice and commentary.

register free