Aaron Perlut, founder of the American Mustache Institute, explains how through comedy, the internet, and some actual lobbying, a "joke" can influence the national dialog.
It's not entirely clear that the American Mustache Institute is a joke. To be sure, it's a put on. The Institute's founder, for example, claims a PhD in nuclear mustacheology. But it's not unknown for the group to advocate passionately and genuinely on behalf of facial-haired Americans. The 'Stache Act, legislation designed by AMI that would bestow a $250 tax credit upon the mustachioed class, sparked controversy late last month in a Maryland congressional race, an incident reported as straight news. Its presidential endorsements are covered by Politico -- with tongue in cheek, but covered still. The American Mustache Institute might be the perfect movement for our times: farcically earnest, digitally adroit, charity-minded and not afraid of commerce, with a hipster vibe that helps it all go down. The Atlantic's Chris Good has interviewed AMI founder Aaron Perlut before. I spoke with Perlut from St. Louis ("home of the world's largest mustache," a.k.a. The Gateway Arch) about what he's learned about selling causes -- even ridiculous ones -- online and off.
Can you give me the background of the American Mustache Institute?
Essentially, we're the greatest organization in the history of mankind behind only the U.S. military and the post-Jim Henson Muppets. [Pause.] We are a civil libertarian group. We are fighting against discrimination against people with facial hair, which happens far more often than you might think. Three for four years ago from a young man in Royse City, Texas, who was removed from his high school classes because he had a mustache. And he was made to shave it or be told that he couldn't go back to school. So we lobbied the superintendent and six months later they actually changed the school board policy. And about two years ago we were contacted by a student at the University of George in Athens who was a waiter at a sushi restaurant. He was told on a Tuesday that if he didn't shave he'd be out of a job on Saturday. We applied pressure to the restaurant and he was allowed to keep his facial hair.
I've talked to numerous CEOs who say that facial hair is frowned upon in their corporate ranks, who had been advised to remove it or they would have trouble elevating. If you look across the corporate spectrum it's rare to find a CEO with a mustache. Right now, Eric Holder is the first mustached-American attorney general since 1946 and Francis Biddle. There's not been a major party candidate with a mustache since Thomas Dewey in 1948.
The American Mustache Institute website celebrates people like George Washington Carver, Martin Luther King, and Medgar Evers. Is that correlation or causation? Does a mustache make you a great American?
It's actually fascinating that you bring up black Americans. When white Americans in the 1980s largely became a clean-shaven culture, black Americans did not abandon the mustache. I've long believed that that's because the greatest civil rights leader of the last 50 years, Dr. King, was a mustached American.
Shouldn't it be "mustachioed Americans"?
You can use either. We've always used "mustached Americans" because mustached Americans struggle with syllables.
The 'Stache Act was drafted by Northeastern State University accounting professor Dr. John Yeutter. How did that come about?
Like many mustached Americans, Dr. Yeutter simply found out about the American Mustache Institute, and he came to an annual charity event we have called the 'Stache Bash. He and I started discussing creating a cogent argument for a tax refund based on the fact that we're improving good looks, providing environmental benefits, and investing in the economy by purchasing U.S. made accoutrements and other facets of the mustached-American lifestyle. He went back and created a proposed legislative base. We probably worked on it for a solid year or two.
What happened recently with the 'Stache Act that got Rep. Roscoe Bartlett [R-MD] in trouble?
It was very simple. As we were preparing to do a presser in DC we reached out to the congressman's office. We asked if we could interview him to get his perspective, whether for or against the proposed 'Stache Act. Most members were on break for Presidents Day, and his office informed us that he simply couldn't do it. I believe it was his press secretary who told the person on our staff who called, 'He can't do it, but we have passed your document onto the Ways and Means Committee.'
To us, it was a simple act of kindness. The congressman couldn't meet with us, and they were kind enough to throw us a bone and pass the document on. I've been disgusted by the vulturous nature of the political opponents who have been attacking him. [Bartlett opponent, state Delegate Kathy Afzali, said that the incident reflected an "out of control staff run amok."]
I'm going to sketch out a matrix. In the top left is Borat. In the bottom left, the Motion Picture Association of America. Top right, Stephen Colbert. Bottom right, the American Medical Association. Where does the American Mustache Institute fit?
We tend to leverage a tremendous amount of humor in delivering our message because we've found it is the most effective means of having people pay attention to what our subtle messages are. But we have two principle charters: promoting the mustached-American lifestyle and, with everything we do, we raising money for charity. We want to be good stewards of the communities we live in.
Basically, we're creating a discussion around the sacrifices made by mustached Americans and at the same time anyone who participates will help contribute through the generous donations of H&R Block. [H&R Block is making a contribution to charity for every supporter of the 'Stache Act.]
We're far superior to the Motion Picture Association and on par with Stephen Colbert. While he's doing it with great humor, he's creating a very specific message about some of the silly rhetoric that revolves around our political community. While there's no question that we're trying to obtain a very real tax deduction for people of mustached-American descent, we are also trying to demonstrate some of the silliness of Washington and the political environment.
So this is proof of concept of what you can do online with humor? Is it, let's see how seriously we can get people to take us? I mean, you make reference to your PhD in "nuclear mustacheology," but yet Politico reports it when you take your endorsement away from Herman Cain.
Quite frankly, we've put a tremendous amount of work into what we're doing. To have a tax policy professor actually write a white paper [on the 'Stache Act] takes real effort. We are very serious about our charter, and we are fortunate in this case to have someone like H&R Block throw its weight behind and lend its credibility to our efforts. They recognize that it could it could represent an important customer segment for them. At the same time, they're doing a philanthropic service.
You've proven that to become a quotable figure in Washington all you need is an establishment-sounding name, an American flag-themed logo, and the ability to write a great press release. Is that a good thing or a bad thing?
It depends on the audience you're speaking to. I've talked to a lot of reporters over the last few years who cover policy and politics and tell me that we need more of this kind of thing. For the people covering Washington there seems to be a thirst for lightening the environment and maybe changing the tone of what we're used to.
When it comes to tools and techniques, what has your work with the American Mustache Institute taught you about experimenting with advocacy and creating a big reach?
I think it's demonstrative of what can be accomplished with a captive audience. Honestly, though, I think the key is the humor with which we approach our cause. The demographic we're trying to reach is 18-35 year olds. Humor speaks to them. And we're operating in a political environment where people have trouble laughing at themselves. We're quite willing to laugh at and embrace the stereotypes of mustached Americans. Consumers look at you as more real, more honest. We embrace things like "Borat" and especially "Anchorman," which was parodying the fact that in the '70s every man in this country had the triple threat -- a perm, a mustache, and a turtleneck.
We embrace caricatures like that. That's why we have hundreds of thousands of people coming to our website on a monthly basis and engaging on Facebook and Twitter. We've also turned the American Mustache Institute website into an entertainment portal. We post celebrity interviews -- we just posted a new one with Ellie Kemper [Erin on "The Office]. It's a really strange vast array of interviews where celebrities get asked some of the dumbest questions ever. But it's engaging. We've created a window through which we can subtly deliver a message about discrimination against mustached Americans.
As as professional marketer, the American Mustache Institute has been one of the most valuable learning experiences I've ever had. I started my career as a TV producer and spent 13, 14 years as a PR guy bothering people like you with horrible pitches. When I got involved in creating the American Mustache Institute back in 2006, 2007, it gave me insight into a new model for delivering messages. It's been a tremendously valuable petri dish.
For instance, we give the The Robert Goulet Memorial Mustached American of the Year Award. It's a ridiculously long name, but it's basically about finding people with mustaches who are doing good things. And it's a vehicle for our charitable efforts, because the winner is named at the 'Stache Bash.
Who are the recipients of those charitable efforts?
It has been everything from Challenger Baseball, which is a baseball league for kids and adults with disabilities, to the Prostate Cancer Foundation, to Livestrong. For this campaign, we're benefitting Millions from One, which funds wells in areas where people can't get clean drinking water.
So the American Mustache Institute isn't completely farce. But it's obviously not completely straight up. It's a strange...
Hybrid. It's something in between.
How you feel about the goatee without the mustache?
Like an Amish look?
No, like a soul patch. For example, in Brooklyn, where I live, we have all sorts of creative facial hair.
You know, hipsters have really embraced the mustached-American lifestyle and taken it to a new level, along with their skinny jeans and unnecessary scarves. People have asked us if hipsters have sullied the mustached-American experience. That's not the case at all. They've embraced it and helped to further it.
But we're obviously purists about mustaches. So we do hope that people include some upper lip garment.
Image credit: American Mustache Institute