It's not every day that a signature idea of a think
tank becomes the title of a best-selling novel. So when we got wind earlier
this year that radio and television talk show host Glenn Beck was working on a
political thriller with the Overton Window as its main plot element, we knew we
had a unique window of opportunity.
The Overton Window of Political Possibility is a theory of
change developed in the 1990s by the Mackinac Center's late vice president,
Joseph Overton. The "window" represents the narrow range of policy options
acceptable to policymakers at any point in time. Contending ideas, Overton
observed, shift the window toward, or away from, liberty. His point was to show
how think tanks can influence public policy.
In a June 15 column posted on AOL News, Beck
wrote, “The Overton Window is a political theory
developed by the late Joseph Overton, a brilliant
public policy strategist and ardent free-marketer.”
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After Overton died, Mackinac Center colleagues renamed his
theory "The Overton Window." Joe Lehman, then-executive vice president of the
Mackinac Center and a long-time colleague and friend of Overton's, taught and
presented the theory to hundreds of participants of the Center's Leadership
Conferences and at workshops around the country.
"The theory explains how think tanks like ours promote
ideas that shape the environment in which lawmakers act," Lehman would explain.
"Today's unacceptable ideas become acceptable. Yesterday's acceptable policies
become unacceptable. You change ideas to shift the Overton Window of Political
Possibility. Shift the window, and you change policy."
The fact that a media giant's best-selling novel would
bear the title "The Overton Window" seemed the very embodiment of Overton's
theory on the power of ideas. In the book, a concept birthed at "a think tank
in the Midwest," as Beck's protagonist described, had reached the attention of
one of the nation's top opinion leaders. Clearly, the publicity generated by
the book would provide the Mackinac Center numerous opportunities to explain to
a national audience the power of our ideas to advance sound public policy.
In anticipation of the
countless thousands of people likely to search online for information on the
book, Center staff created a dedicated Web page and secured related domain
names, such as theovertonwindow.com. The page included a brief definition of
the Overton Window, lengthier essays on the theory, a section addressing
frequently asked questions, an interactive window and examples of Mackinac
Center materials that advance ideas in the way the Overton Window describes. The
Washington Post included a link to the site in its review of Beck's book.
Using search engine optimization techniques, we improved
search rankings to ensure placement in the top five search results on Google
and other engines. We updated and enhanced the Overton Window Wikipedia entry,
created a facebook page and purchased Google and facebook ads to steer readers
to Mackinac Center resources.
While this preparation
was taking place, Beck's team was working out the details to have Lehman appear
as the Overton Window "resident expert" on both the nationally syndicated radio
show, The Glenn Beck Program, and the Glenn Beck show on Fox News. The combined
audience would be between 10 million and 12 million viewers and listeners.
In May, Beck's creative director sent Lehman an advance
copy of The Overton Window. Based on pre-order sales, the book was already a
best-seller, even though it would not be released until June 15.
On June 9, Lehman travelled to New York City to be an
in-studio guest on Beck's radio program. During the live, 11-minute segment,
Beck said, "It is amazing to me that people don't know what the Overton Window
is, because we use it instinctively."
The interview was carried live on 400 radio stations
nationwide, including 15 in Michigan. The interview could also be viewed online
at GlennBeck.com. Subscribers to Beck's "Insiders Extreme" were e-mailed a more
robust video version of the radio interview and a separately produced video
that included segments where Lehman explained the Overton Window and discussed
it in the context of school choice. Subscribers were also e-mailed
a transcript of the radio interview.
Later that day, Lehman
recorded a segment for Fox News that aired on June 16. Keeping with the
program's style, Lehman explained the theory using a pointer and animated
graphics that showed the spectrum of possible education and welfare policies.
During the six-minute segment, Lehman and Beck exchanged ideas about how the
Overton Window concept applied to political debates old and new. On
June 17, GlennBeck.com featured additional footage of Lehman discussing
the history of the Overton Window.
In the final segment, posted on the Fox News
website, Beck and Lehman discussed "Overton's Revenge," the concept that
politicians will pay a price if they stray outside the window. Lehman returned to the digital screen to
explain how facts and logic, appeals to morality, emotional appeals and other
factors contribute to the shifting of the window.
The response to this publicity bonanza was phenomenal. TheOvertonWindow.com drew nearly 30,000 unique visitors and led to more than
1,500 new Mackinac Center subscribers, from throughout Michigan and from New
Hampshire to Hawaii. Contributors old and new sent checks to help the Center
capitalize on the unprecedented publicity.
Lehman did follow-up
interviews around the state and around the country. Columns highlighting the
role of the Mackinac Center appeared in publications as diverse as National
Review Online and the Detroit Free Press.
The marketing effort proved a prime example of cooperation
within the free-market movement. The Mackinac Center partnered with the State
Policy Network, the Institute for Justice, the Franklin Center, the Heritage
Foundation, the Evergreen Freedom Foundation, the Pacific Research Institute
and others to maximize the impact and reach the most people with our message.
At least a dozen sister organizations prominently posted a link to
theovertonwindow.com on their home pages, raising its visibility, directing
traffic and improving the search rankings. Several e-mailed members about the
page and Lehman's appearances. In the same vein, the Overton Window page and
follow-up e-mails included a link to the State Policy Network's directory of
state-based think tanks to introduce out-of-state visitors to the free-market
think tanks in their states.
What began as a simple think
tank theory of explaining how ideas affect culture ended up becoming a media
phenomenon itself. As Lehman told Beck's radio audience, "There's nothing that
Joe Overton would have liked more than to know that one of his concepts was
making it smack dab in the middle of popular culture."