Once upon a time I couldn’t talk to a client (I work in advertising) without hearing the term “brand manifesto.” Everyone wanted one, like they were all bewitched by the same sorcerer’s spell for everlasting profit. What struck me wasn’t the frequency that I got the request — we’re talking about one of the most persuasive and enduring mediums of our time — but that no one seemed to know what they wanted theirs to say. This is a far cry from the political manifestos that come to mind — The Communist Manifesto, US Declaration of Independence, Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” — which aim to change society and have a pretty good idea of how to go about it. Thus began my rabbit hole into what makes a manifesto, how they’ve evolved, and what they convey about our collective state of mind. If a manifesto is defined as “a written statement declaring publicly the intentions, motives, or views of its issuer” this channel is an interrogation of how far that can stretch. As a genre, they may make absolute claims, but my take is that their form is anything but.
Art manifestos signaled beginnings: radical departures from the canon that launched movements from Surrealism to Dada. Lars Von Trier and Thomas Vinterberg wrote Dogma 95 (1995) as an attempt to "take back power” for directors as artists, set on purifying filmmaking by eliminating special effects, post-production, and other technological gimmicks. This has all the makings of a manifesto: radically departing from the hegemony, clearly stating a point of view, attempting to recruit others into this belief. It has striking similarities to political manifestos in language (“called for resurrection”) and religious ones in format (a numbered list of tenets). And similar to the gravity of manifestos of prior centuries, it asks others to do more than sign on the dotted line, but to take a Vow of Chastity. What better way to establish your own authority than by invoking the ultimate purity?
Yvonne Rainer’s No Manifesto (1964) does the opposite. A dance choreographer who wanted to strip back the flourishes and focus dance on its essential elements, Rainer articulates that notion in a format equally as stark. She negates the usual “statement as truth” format of a manifesto; instead of telling us what to do she tells us what not to do. The impact comes in the simplicity of language and repetitive structure: the power of no in full effect.
Performing the manifesto adds a new dimension to its meaning. In the late 1970s, Jenny Holzer began posting her first public work, “Truisms,” across New York City, from Midland Bank to Fashion Moda in the Bronx. She repurposed the phrases from the Whitney Museum’s Independent Study Program’s reading list as a way of making the profoundness of heavy texts more accessible. In an interview with Bruce Ferguson, Holzer referred to them as “my version of everything that could be right or wrong with the world expressed in the form of people’s pronouncements.” Their power comes through the anonymity of the author and the equality of presentation. The tone is consistent, no matter the topic. Each truism gets its own line. The typography and sizing remains the same — and could be from anyone’s typewriter. As a whole, the truisms paint a portrait of the world where all these ideas exist simultaneously, and isn’t that reflective of how life works? In a way, they were living manifestos: because they were wheatpasted, people would check what they liked, cross out what they didn’t, and write notes on why. Adapted from other voices, with no apparent author, and remixed by the public — to what extent does a manifesto have to be concrete and singular to be resonant?
Manifestos have long borrowed from the language of advertising, and today we’ve come full circle to where the medium has been co-opted by the industry to recruit through the shiny promise of belonging. Besides winning the award for most characters printed on a label (when the prevailing best practice is the opposite) Dr. Bronner’s manifesto-as-label is so earnest that it reads as nonsensical. The founder, Emanuel Bronner, saw soap as a vehicle to spread his Moral ABCs, also known as “The Moral ABC of Astronomy’s Eternal All-One-God-Faith Unites the Human Race!”: a call to unite humanity across all divisions. In Bronner’s words, “we have a peace plan where we unite the spaceship, where we unite all mankind.” Before the existence of the brand, Bronner would give lectures on unity and hand out some of his unlabeled soap as a thank you gift to attendees. When people started coming for the soap without waiting to hear his sermon, he put the message on the label so they could read it later. The product became the preacher! The brand today, helmed by his grandson, is just as committed to the manifesto, modifying it only to promote new, equally moral causes like Regenerative Organic Certification. It’s chaotic but clean, hides the message and spreads it, and gets a pass for excessive use of exclamation points because that is the point!!! Highly recommend reading the label in full under a hot shower when your serotonin tank is empty.
In Cultish: The Language of Fanaticism, Amanda Montell explains how cults rely on language to attract followers and retain power through manipulation, thought termination, and coercion (all in the name of ideology, of course). Manifestos are persuasive by design, and their language-first format makes them an attractive vessel for a cult to sell its breed of eternal salvation. Heaven’s Gate, founded in 1974 at the intersection of Christian morals, New Age mindest, and UFOlogy, believed that followers could transform themselves into immortal extraterrestrial beings and ascend to heaven. This manifesto by one of their leaders, Marshall Applewhite (known as Do to his followers) is part story, part gospel, full recruitment. He uses the form to assert the validity of his leadership by way of another manifesto, The Bible, and recruit others to follow his lead. Through the recontextualization and creation of words — “Luciferians,” physical bodies as “vessels,” “Next Level,” “classroom” — he builds a world brimming with promise. This bright and shiny vocabulary is a calling card to individuals who want to believe in a higher purpose but never had the words to express it. The language creates an air of exclusivity that makes people feel above the average human, or even chosen. As the words migrate from the page to everyday conversation, they simultaneously bond members and alienate them from the rest of society by teaching them to speak a different language — further reducing their chances of leaving the cult. If there’s a lesson here, I suppose it’s that manifestos, like all tools, can be used for evil, and knowing how to separate the means of delivery from the truth of the message has never been more necessary.
We live in an age of self-optimization, where we are made to believe that everything in our lives can be better, faster, and more productive. This is ripe breeding ground for the manifesto, since getting someone to be the highest version of themselves (whether through niacinamide serums or Soulcycle) requires a bit of persuasion. This block pulled from Be Here Now, the 70s counterculture bible for the spiritually curious, was a badge of the New Age movement that lives on through its rebrand to Goopified wellness. Written by former Harvard psychologist, LSD researcher, and spiritual teacher Ram Dass, it was both an account of his life and path to a higher power that offered the tools to take control of your life. There’s this interesting call and response dynamic where he both addresses the reader and answers their thoughts. This reminds me how manifestos themselves are mediums of response: they exist to provoke your beliefs enough to react, and we see that unfold here plainly.
A new wave of self-help manifestos employs the elements of the genre and flips them on their head through a nihilistic lens. Here there is no radical ideology and it’s not written by a philosopher, but it does clearly say something about the beliefs of the writer and the times we’re living in. The matter-of-fact actions mean little in isolation, but when repeated as a list they offer the full picture you miss as you’re going through the motions of living. It’s a manifesto for the terminally online, and while it questions our lived reality and hints at departure, it offers no way to escape. Kind of like the black holes of the internet, no?
If the goal of a manifesto is to change someone’s mind, then perhaps the greatest measure of success is getting them to take action. When attention is both a marketing metric and a finite resource, manifestos may not perform as elaborate disquisitions, but rather hide in plain sight under the pretense of making a point in two seconds or less. Virgil Abloh’s “THINK OUTSIDE THE BOX” tee (now selling for $250 on Grailed) was delivered in a tweet: “‘Think Outside the Box’ made from 50% Recycled Polyester/50% Upcycled Cotton. this T-Shirt uses 5 plastic bottles + .26 lbs of fabric scraps saving 63 gallons of water.” While his work challenged fashion’s relationship with labels and their validity through the use of scare quotes — “air” “luxury” “T-shirt” “website” — we can only assume this is a deeper provocation than doing things differently. Here we see a manifesto with multiple interpretations: a call for unhinged imagination, sure, but also a mockery of flat-earthers, and a cry for sustainable innovation. It’s clear about the way you should feel, implies what you should do about it, and gives you a chance to spread the word by wearing it. We can’t ignore the medium’s role in sharing the message (see also: The Futurist Manifesto in Le Figaro), so if Twitter (RIP) replaced the newspaper and brands are the ultimate virtue signals, why couldn’t this be the manifesto reincarnate?
You know I had to end on something you never would have considered a manifesto when we started. This post by Global Self Hypnosis is superficially an affirmation (my next channel?) that reveals a new take on a manifesto. Going back to our original definition, it departs from previous ideology — in this case the ubiquitous affirmations spread by Pinterest and IG inspo accounts — by channeling the existentialist doom of daily life rather than grandiose gestures of toxic positivity. It declares its motives publicly: both the inward turmoil of an anxiety spiral and outward intent on overcoming it. Notably the ‘we’ has shifted to ‘I’ which doubles as a call to action for writer and reader, bonding them through a shared experience of not giving in to self-destructive tendencies. “I won’t stay at home and overthink,” if repeated enough times, could shift the reality.If there’s a prediction buried in all of this: bound to a peak-nihilist internet, the only audience we may seek to convince with future manifestoes is ourselves.
Natalee Ranii-Dropcho is a multi-hyphenate creative working at the intersection of strategy and storytelling. She builds brand worlds from the ground up, makes photographs to remember she exists, and uses her superpowers for good. Lately she’s been thinking about the end of authenticity and landscape as a construct of nationalism. She is currently alive in Brooklyn, NY.