How to Make an Advocacy Video about Africa, Take II

Dear Readers, Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

Reasonable people may argue that if Emmanuelle Chriqui sucking on a Popsicle is what it takes to make some people care that there is a country called the Democratic Republic of Congo, then, well, that’s a good thing. And if Nicole Ritchie babbling nonsense about mothers eating their babies increases attention to Darfur, that’s a good thing too. I’m not so sure.

When these videos “educate” Americans that Africa is a boiling mess of rape, starvation, and war, we get people who believe that Africans are only able to survive thanks to OUR aid, so we must “save” them. As we’ve debated on this blog before, this can lead to the support of wrong-headed policies that could have a real impact (a bad one) on real people’s lives.

And when we reassure people that they are “making a difference” by performing the most mundane, irrelevant of tasks (like buying a coffee, clicking a link, or sending a text) we squander the finite time people have for learning about people they will never meet in places they will never visit. We absolve them of the responsibility and hard work it takes to educate themselves about the world around them and do something constructive (like be an Aid Watcher!).

As for real suggestions: Don’t let my inability to come up with the miraculous recipe for the perfect advocacy video serve as an excuse to stop criticizing what is blatantly bad right now. As we keep saying on this blog, stopping something that is harmful is still positive change. Figuring out how to educate disaffected or uninformed people and get them to act is a difficult problem, and it needs a lot more than a blog post’s worth of time to solve.

So while I don’t claim to have the definitive list, I will venture a few preliminary suggestions. Honestly, these strike me as a little thin and in some cases fairly obvious, but again the examples of bad practices I cited in the original post would suggest otherwise. Please do draw on your expertise to add thoughts and other suggestions in the comments (as well as any examples you think are praiseworthy) and maybe we can come up with some workable principles.

1. It’s okay to assume that people know nothing about your cause. But it’s not okay to use this as an excuse to pander to the lowest common denominator, like sex or celebrity worship.

2. Don’t exaggerate numbers to attract more attention. This throws any claim of credibility and objectivity you might have into question. Do use accurate numbers to convey the scale and importance of your cause. Be as specific as possible in the limited time about exactly where, why, and when the crisis is occurring. Simplistic and extreme portrayals generate simplistic and extreme policies.

3. If you are using celebrity spokespeople, make sure they are well-informed about your cause and respectful of the people in the video. Though not the perfect example, I think the videos and slideshows here (see the second video from the bottom, for example) avoid sensationalism, do a good job of being specific about what is going on, and make good use of an informed celebrity spokesperson.

4. If you are going to use images of Africans, don’t engage in blatant stereotyping, and be respectful of your subjects. The Good Intentions Are Not Enough blog has some good posts on the use of photography in aid marketing; similar principles could apply to videos.

5. Be transparent about what you will do with donations and proceeds from merchandise sales.

6. Be honest about the impact that the action you are requesting will have on the cause you are supporting.