It’s 5pm. You’ve had a long day and all you want to do is binge-watch Friends. But not before you’re reminded of Oscar, the 4 year old Ethiopian who is too weak and malnourished to swipe the flies from his eyes; the donation that you probably won’t give “could save his life”. Or perhaps your guilt will be graced by Pampers, who are proudly boasting about how many vaccinations they’ve been able to give to children in the Third World thanks to all their consumers who bought their products. Possibly you were in America in 2008 and noticed a Starbucks TV advertisement on their Product Red campaign over the holiday season? This advert asked you,”What if when you save someone else’s life, you could save your own?” How? By buying yourself a coffee and donating 5 cents by doing so. Your Superman title has well and truly been earned. NGOs are constantly trying to find the most effective way to connect with westerners so they donate money to their cause, but which works best in touching the wealthy northern hemisphere’s hearts?
They are three strategies used by NGOs at which I was hinting. The first and most commonly used to us is “Pornography of Poverty.” This is when poor people are presented to a northern audience as helpless victims in need of rescuing. Typically this shows a child staring wide eyed directly in the camera’s lens. Their hopeless gaze is used to target our inner conscience. Before you know it we are guilt tripped into donating money to this NGO’s cause. Children are a prime use for this tactic as they have no political strings attached, and ‘it’s not their fault they were born into poverty’ whereas we are more likely to think adults in poverty are not as helpless. This tactic is effective but is criticised, as Cameron and Haanstra argue “it encourages cultural and intellectual superiority among northern publics.” (2008, 1478) A recent example of this is from Unicef’s Syria Winter appeal.
Alternatively, there are positive campaigns that are used widely by NGOs. This developed following criticism that was made around pornography of poverty and so deliberate positivism came into play. It focuses on the benefits and changes previous donors have made. Again a child is a favourite model and stories from the benefited individual are often used to promote this positivity. It is a grin of gratefulness spread across the individual’s face. There is a switch from sympathy used in pornography of poverty to empathy that is presented in deliberate positivism. Scott states that it “directly challenges the sense of compassion fatigue or powerlessness generated by the repeated use shock appeals.” (2015, 150) These sorts of images are more likely used for long term development issues. A typical example can be seen below in Tearfund’s campaign. This may seem like a great alternative but it comes with complications. For example it masks the complexity and issues behind development and still highlights the inequalities between the ‘simple southerner’ and the ‘rich northerner’.
A recent strategy of the last few decades has been to make development sexy. This is to dissolve the guilt involved in donating and replaces it with a feel good and look good factor to eradicating poverty. Often a way charities achieve this sex appeal is by borrowing some from celebrities by giving them the position of a spokesperson for the charity. NGOs think this allows fans of the celebrity to become attached to a interest close to their idol’s heart. It also gives the media a taste of aid, as they would rather write about Selena Gomez’s time out from the studio to visit the children in Ghana than a sob story on poverty. Development made sexy makes it about the donor rather than the receiver. The (Red) campaign is a prime example of development made sexy. It gave you the opportunity to make a difference, and if you buy this product you’re a cool and good person. How sexy?
Poor, positive or provocative? There is no perfect solution. Pornography for poverty dehumanises the poor. Deliberate positivism can mask the difficulties of development. Development made sexy shifts the light from the real cause. Perhaps the perfect promotion method has still yet to be found but nevertheless I doubt we will be escaping these three methods anytime soon.
Cameron, J, & Haanstra, A 2008, ‘Development Made Sexy: how it happened and what it means’, Third World Quarterly, 29, 8, pp. 1475-1489, Business Source Complete, EBSCOhost, viewed 19 February 2016.
Scott, M 2014, Media And Development, n.p.: London : Zed books, 2014., UEA Library Catalogue, EBSCOhost, viewed 18 February 2016.
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