How humanitarian marketing campaigns like #Kony2012 work and why they will ultimately fail.
Last March, a film aimed at raising awareness about crimes against humanity in East Africa became the fastest-spreading internet video ever. Within a week of its release, Kony2012 had been viewed 100 million times and dominated Twitter, Facebook and the news for days.
On the surface, it seems remarkable that a half-hour film about Ugandan warlord Joseph Kony stopped so many in their tracks, especially given that we are arguably living in an increasingly narcissistic, consumerist and individualistic society. Kony2012 appears at first glance to have been a cultural anomaly - a spotlight on injustices so morally reprehensible as to wake the Western masses from their materialistic slumbers.
But it wasn't. In fact, it was the opposite.
Kony2012 captured the public's imagination not because it shocked individuals out of their day-to-day preoccupations with consumption and self-enhancement - as one might expect from a documentary exposing child abduction, rape and murder - but because it specifically appealed to those preoccupations.
Kony2012 did not spread like wildfire because it stood in opposition to individualism and consumerism, but because it managed to turn the pursuit of global justice into an individualistic, consumerist activity. It did not aim to inspire feelings of universal moral responsibility, but commodified 'universal moral responsibility' into a consumable product that can operate within the capitalist culture most people readily understand.
It did this in part by shifting the focus of what is understood by 'humanitarianism'. Instead of championing ideas of global justice, Kony2012 became an exercise in brand recognition. And rather than cultivate a sense of empathy with distant, suffering others, Kony2012 cultivated a sense of empathy with Western 'humanitarian heroes'.
These strategies follow broader trends that have been developing in humanitarian communication over the last few years. These new techniques have been successful in eliciting short-term donations and gaining people's temporary attention. But these strategies also reduce mass activism and the pursuit of global justice into self-involved, individualised leisure pursuits, and this may be undermining the development of more meaningful, long-term and genuinely effective engagement.
Many have rightly criticised Kony2012 for its misleading analysis of the situation in Uganda and the naïve solutions it suggested. But the campaign's failures were not just of content but also - and perhaps even more damagingly - of form.
Post-humanitarian campaigns: where's Kony?
Since the 1960s, there have been two main genres of humanitarian advert. The first has variously been referred to as 'atrocity imagery', 'shock effect communication', 'disaster tourism' and 'poverty pornography' amongst other things. The second can be summed up as 'positive image' communication.
In the first, viewers are confronted with cold, unadulterated images of human suffering which are intended to elicit feelings of guilt, despair and indignation. Harrowing shots of emaciated children with flies on their faces, for example, are used to shock, guilt-trip and shame audiences into action.
On the other hand, positive image campaigns focus on the alleviation of suffering. Viewers are shown smiling, grateful children enjoying the benefits of the school or water-well recently built thanks to voluntary donations. Uplifting images and music create feelings of empathy and tender-heartedness, and viewers are urged to sympathise with recipients and be compassionate.
Kony2012 is unlike either of these forms. The film does not emphasise the helplessness and passivity of Kony's victims. Nor does it make efforts to humanise them and make them empathetic. In fact, Kony2012 barely even bothers to show the imagined beneficiaries of the campaign at all; barely four minutes of the film's thirty-minute running-time even focuses on them.
Of these short moments, only around two minutes resemble either shock effect or positive image campaigning: we see 50 seconds of straightforward footage showing northern Uganda several years ago, and about one minute of Jacob - the only person directly affected by Kony we meet in the film - speaking, albeit with numerous interruptions.
In the rest of the film, only two more minutes are spent explicitly focussing on Kony's crimes and victims. And in these moments, the style is very far away from the cold photorealism of traditional humanitarian adverts. Rather than confronting viewers with a supposedly objective window onto the reality of human anguish, Kony2012 depicts Ugandan children using heavily stylised techniques and subtle optical illusions.
Still images are manipulated to look three-dimensional and sway in and out of focus as they rotate slowly. Silent photographs are visually transformed to resemble videogame-like graphics. And fast-cutting shots are separated by long, slow fade-outs. We hear film-maker Jason Russell's narration throughout, while those he is talking about are unspeaking, unmoving and thoroughly optically-transformed. Kony's victims are depicted in ways that are neither geared towards provoking emotions of guilt and pity nor compassion and tender-heartedness. Instead they are shown in strange ways that make them seem not quite real and not quite there.
If not by focussing on victims of injustice in ways that appeal to viewers' moral indignation or tender-hearted empathies, how did Kony2012 manage to persuade viewers to act? How can a film aimed at raising awareness of Kony's crimes spend just a few minutes showing those crimes? What was going on in the other 90% of the film?
Post-humanitarian campaigns: just do it
Kony2012 was not unique in its reluctance to depict the beneficiaries of humanitarian action. In fact, it followed an emergent trend of what the brilliant media theorist Lilie Chouliaraki refers to as "post-humanitarian" communication.
"As opposed to the other two styles of appealing that draw on universal discourses of ethics" Chouliaraki argues, "this style abandons universal morality. What it communicates instead is the organisational brand itself...It strategically replaces moralistic exhortation with brand recognition."
In post-humanitarian adverts, she suggests, the case for moral action or serious emotional engagement become largely irrelevant. Instead, the goal is to associate certain qualities and characteristics with an organisation's brand, and then invite viewers to psychologically embody those qualities by buying into the brand - as with corporate marketing campaigns by the likes of Nike and Coca-Cola. When this is the purpose of humanitarian communication, showing the imagined beneficiaries of humanitarian action is no longer necessary.
Oxfam's 'Glen, Gary and Ross' advert about land-grabbing, for example, is simply a parody of a scene from the 1992 Al Pacino film Glengarry Glen Ross. The victims of land-grabs are never seen and their moral absurdity is only alluded to through an overarching pop-culture reference.
Taking a slightly different approach, Amnesty International's 'Together We Can Beat Poverty' uses caricatured stickman-like cartoons to depict various global injustices. It is revealed that all these abuses are being perpetuated by a giant cartoon ogre turning a big wheel of doom. The cartoon victims jump out of their scenes and destroy the nasty monster.
At the end of these adverts, no further information or context is given, nor are any specific actions recommended. Instead, the charity's logo slowly appears on the screen and, below it, a link to the organisation's website.
These kinds of corporate branding strategies form the backbone of Kony2012. Rather than persuading viewers to act for moral or political reasons, the film tries to create subtle psychological linkages between the Kony2012 brand and certain values. As with many corporate brands, Kony2012 does this by painting an attractive picture of the kinds of people who already subscribe to the brand and implicitly invite viewers to become one of them.
The climactic moments of Kony2012 thus resemble expensive marketing campaigns. Catchy, inspirational music kicks in while the Kony2012 logo is repeated again and again as we cut rapidly to different shots of Kony2012 adherents out in number. We are shown countless images of young people running through the streets with Kony2012 flags and banners, plastering walls with Kony2012 posters in the dead of night, and standing in fields by the hundred wearing Kony2012 t-shirts and holding their fists in the air. We see the Kony2012 logo on clothing, badges, stickers, yard signs and wristbands as well as hanging off prominent bridges, covering tall buildings and painted on the side of specially-branded vehicles.
While traditional campaigns confront viewers with stark images of human suffering or grateful beneficiaries, Kony2012 shows endless images of attractive young Kony2012 benefactors looking heroic and courageous, and suggests that by subscribing to the brand, viewers too can embody those characteristics.
In post-humanitarian communication then, the reasoning for action offered is not one based on ideas of global solidarity or moral obligation but one based on market-consumerist affiliations and brand recognition. The goal is not to make viewers identify with transcendent ethical ideals or with communities of fellow human beings elsewhere in the world - rather, it is to make viewers self-identify with humanitarian brands and an imagined community of fellow brand adherents.
A few days after Kony2012 went viral, the UK's Channel4 News asked a focus group of teenagers why they spread the video and were all (apart from one) going to buy the Kony2012 action pack. One girl summed up:
"You watch the video and you see all those people involved already and you think 'why aren't I involved in it, why don't I know about it?' I want to help if all those people are helping too!"
Personal crusades: Jason's story
Another central facet of Kony2012 - and one which also redirects the focus of humanitarianism away from global concerns and towards more familiar, self-oriented preoccupations - is that of the personal crusade. Usually the person at the centre of these individualised struggles is a celebrity, but in Kony2012 it was Jason the narrator and film-maker.
In the 30-minute film, Jason is ever-present. We see Jason's son being born, we see Jason playing with his son, we see Jason visit Uganda, we see Jason preaching to an auditorium of students, and we see Jason go through countless other ups and downs. Jason is our guide through the film. But he is also its protagonist; Kony2012 is the story of Jason. It is Jason's life trajectory that provides the narrative structure and even the premise for the documentary.
Kony and his victims are only ever introduced as things in Jason's life. After nearly two minutes spent telling the viewer about what Jason's son Gavin likes to do - and over four minutes into the video - Jason finally comes to explain the raison d'être for the film, explaining: "As a dad, I want him [Gavin] to grow up in a better world than I did...Years before Gavin was born, the course of my life was changed entirely by another boy."
That other boy was Jacob, who was abducted and escaped from Joseph Kony's Lord's Resistance Army. But, as mentioned previously, Jacob barely gets the chance to speak. Jacob is constantly interrupted by Jason, and when he finally does manage to describe his experiences at the hands of Kony's rebels, Jason not only quickly jumps in but also co-opts Jacob's heart-rending story to make it part of his own biography. "Everything in my heart told me to do something and so I made him a promise", Jason's voiceover proclaims, reassuring the viewer that this film is about Jason not Jacob. "Over the past 9 years I have fought to fulfil it."
The focus then shifts wholeheartedly back to Jason as we return to Jason's home and little Gavin. Then, for the middle third of the film we hear about what Jason and his colleagues have been doing for the past few years: "We didn't know what else to do...We started something, a community...We got creative and we got loud...We were committed to stop Kony...We created jobs...We went back to Washington...We met with congressmen and senators..."
In this story of Jason making heart-felt promises, battling heroically with the establishment, and gallantly trying to make a better life for his son, the other characters we see - such as Jacob, Kony, and Kony's tens of thousands of victims - are little more than extras, props and set design.
Personal crusades: the humanitarian hero
The way in which Kony2012 centred on the actions of one heroic individual follows in a trend taking shape in humanitarian communication more broadly - most notably in celebrity advocacy.
Typically, celebrity involvement in charity has had two main purposes. Firstly, to help raise awareness; when a famous figure talks about a cause, more people listen than when a non-famous figure speaks about it. Secondly, celebrities have acted as mediators between distant sufferers and viewers in documentaries and charity adverts; audiences find it easier to make sense of unfamiliar situations when a familiar, empathetic figure is there to act as a kind of stand-in or emotional guide for the viewer.
Today, both of these mechanisms are being transformed in their emphasis and effect.
Firstly, the ways in which celebrities draw attention to humanitarian causes has shifted towards ever more emotionalised forms. An emphasis on dignified sincerity has made way for an emphasis on authenticity of feeling. Ever more so, the suffering of others is not just pointed to but emotionally responded to, expressed through the very body of the celebrity, and performed as if it were the celebrity's own.
At the start of this clip from a documentary in which Lindsey Lohan visits a child shelter in India, for example, the Hollywood actress cries uncontrollably as she hears the tragic story of the little girl sitting on her lap. The other women in the room look on awkwardly and the young child herself is smiling and giggling before she realises Lohan has become emotional distraught. Seeing Lohan suffering, the young girl - a former street beggar and domestic abuse victim - tries to console the sobbing actress. Hollywood star Angelina Jolie also frequently weeps in humanitarian appeals, and it is commonplace now to see famous faces holding back tears as they read out the phone number during the appeal segments of the UK's 'Comic Relief' and 'Sports Relief' telethons.
Secondly, celebrities' broader roles as humanitarians are changing too. Rather than acting as mere mediators for viewers at home or as ambassadors for broader organisations such as UNICEF, celebrities such as Angelina Jolie and George Clooney have become humanitarian behemoths in their own rights.
Jolie has written books about field visits, made numerous documentaries, spoken at the World Economic Forum, personally lobbied members of the US Congress, and founded several of her own charities and foundations. Clooney meanwhile has produced several documentaries, published prominent op-ed pieces, had an audience with the UN Security Council, and personally set up a satellite project monitoring military movement in Darfur.
In these endeavours, famous figures' high-profile statuses are not de-emphasised in an effort to make celebrities relatable as mediators for viewers at home. Rather, their unique capacities as celebrities become absolutely central and their celebrity status is hyper-emphasised. They are not used to stand in for 'any human being' or 'someone like you', but are set free to change the world as individual superheroes in their own right, using the money, influence and power their celebrity statuses have conferred upon them.
These trends once again shift the focus away from the sufferer and towards the celebrity and viewers' engagement with that celebrity. Audiences may feel pity, compassion and solidarity, but towards Western celebrities rather than distant others. And rather than raising awareness of humanitarian causes, humanitarian causes are increasingly raising awareness of celebrities. Famous stars no longer just act as ambassadors subordinating themselves to larger goals, but incorporate humanitarian goals into personalised crusades in which they form the main focal point.
In Kony2012 then, it was not simply bad interviewing technique that prompted Jason to keep interrupting the former child abductee Jacob, to tell him what he, Jason Russell, was going to do to help him. Rather, it followed on from a broader trend whereby the spotlight has shifted from suffering to celebrities' emotional responses to suffering, and from stories of injustice to stories of Western heroes' battles against injustice.
Through the looking glass
As many pointed out at the time, the actions Kony2012 advocated were ill-conceived and the picture the film painted of the situation in Uganda was over-simplistic and years out of date. But, as with certain broader trends in humanitarian communication, Kony2012 suffered from problems not just of content but also of form.
In the early 20th century, sociologist Georg Simmel came up with some metaphors for human connection in which he contrasted the bridge, the door and the window. The bridge, he said, unifies two sides, allowing freedom of movement and making the two sides equal. The door enables some travel in and out, but the inside and outside remain fixed and the door can always be closed. The window, finally, maintains only a vague sense of connectivity whereby those on the inside can look out but there is no opportunity for movement or real engagement.
Humanitarian campaigns can at best provide a metaphorical door whereby viewers come to recognise the moral proximity of what is on the other side, occasionally finding themselves moved to go through it although the power to shut the door inevitably remains. More typically though, charity adverts have provided a window whereby the viewer is confronted by what is happening far away but only in a fleeting and voyeuristic capacity.
Problems with this window have long troubled humanitarian advertisers, and it was the public's growing reluctance to look through the often harrowing windows of charity adverts that prompted a change of strategy - audiences were suffering from what Susan Moeller calls "compassion fatigue".
Charity advertisers thus faced a dilemma - the window no longer worked. They could have smashed the window so that those on the outside could be better seen and better heard - they could have built a door by fostering a greater sense of global solidarity, by contextualising humanitarian situations and by giving a greater voice to those on the other side. But instead, advertisers went in the opposite direction - they immersed those on the other side in darkness. And when only one's own side of a window is illuminated, it acts as a mirror. Glass is only transparent when light shines through, and those on the bright inside looking out at the black window see only reflections of themselves.
Kony2012 and post-humanitarian communication hold up metaphorical mirrors to Western viewers. They obscure distant others and in doing so also obscure notions of solidarity, moral responsibility or bigger-than-self aspirations. Instead, the mirror tells viewers that changing the world starts and ends with themselves, that there is nothing but viewers' own reflections.
And this works up to a point. Kony2012 was unrivalled in its spread as a viral campaign and, in the UK, donations to international aid NGOs have been rising. But at the same time, these same strategies are possibly undermining the cultivation of more concerted, long-term commitments. (Kony2012 itself did not even sustain interest long enough to mobilise action for its Cover the Night campaign the next month.)
The post-humanitarian mirror may persuade unprecedented numbers to take some kind of action, and one could easily make the argument that any action is better than none. The danger, however, is that - by reducing mass activism to fleeting, self-oriented consumption, and by reducing global responsibility to self-rewarding, pain-free leisure activities - these strategies may be hindering anything but the most minimal, easy and instantly gratifying of actions.
Many theorists have pointed out that creating global justice will require long-term systemic change - change which might not be in Western powers' economic and political interests, nor in the best day-to-day interests of their people in the short-term. This is why pragmatist philosopher Richard Rorty believed that bringing about global justice first required Western publics to feel a strong sense of global solidarity. Only when Western masses genuinely empathise with distant others, he argued, will they be prepared to endure the self-sacrifice and hardship of systemic change. Reforming an economic and political system which privileges the West over the Rest will only become palatable to Westerners when the suffering of distant others becomes even more unpalatable.
The problem with post-humanitarian strategies then is that they undermine both the cultivation of global solidarities and the idea that genuine change requires long-term commitment and self-sacrifice. Post-humanitarian campaigns may enjoy a few successes in achieving low-level short-term goals, but at the same time, their redefinition of mass activism as a self-oriented commercial activity may weaken the very idea of real, long-term reform. It is notable that while donations to foreign aid agencies in the UK may be rising, a range of surveys has found that self-reported concern about, and engagement with, global poverty has been falling for seven years.
Put another way, the more that viewers are encouraged to revel in their own reflections, and the more that Western audiences get used to thinking that their own reflection is all there is, what happens on the other side may fade into irrelevance.
During the Channel4 News discussion, two experts explained to the gathered teenagers that the Kony2012 video had been factually misleading, that the situation on the ground was infinitely more complex than suggested, and that the solutions offered by the film were over-simplistic and could easily fail. With heavy hearts, they warned that failure to capture Kony within the deadline set by the film could end up disillusioning the millions it inspired. This prompted the most vocal of the teenagers to bravely speak up against the experts, arguing:
"I disagree with that because I'm an active citizen, I campaign a lot so I know I've done my bit...Even if we don't find him by the deadline I know I've done my bit...It won't disillusion me."
Translated, that seems to say: We may not help anyone in the end but that's okay, because that was never really the point anyway.
James Wan is the Senior Copy-Editor for Think Africa Press. He is a British-born Mauritian and has particular interests in China-Africa relations, human rights and social theory. He holds an MSc in Sociology from the London School of Economics and a BA in Social & Political Sciences from the University of Cambridge.