In Which MSF Follows Our Fake Principles from Our Satirical Advocacy Video Guide

When we wrote a satirical guide to making advocacy videos about Africa, we didn't expect anyone to actually make a video using some of our (fake) principles! But the people at Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) UK apparently did so, with their new controversial cinema ad campaign, entitled "Boy."* In the new ad, the camera is locked on a single shot: a concrete, bullet-ridden hut, with the graffiti images of war, the front door left open. We are somewhere in Africa. The only movement is the rustling of a plastic bag in the foreground and black smoke billowing from somewhere behind the building. The one-minute soundtrack, from start to finish, is a child desperately crying. The messages which appear slowly on the screen give a horrible meaning to the cries:

One of our doctors is treating a 5-year-old boy/

Militia have just raped his two sisters/

Then clubbed his parents to death /

We can’t operate without your help/


You can see the ad here.

Once you recover from the punch to the gut, you note this ad is powerful and well-executed. This is no surprise since it was created by McCann Erikson, the ad firm that brought us "I'd like the teach the world to sing" and "There are some things money can't buy. For everything else, there's MasterCard."

The second thing that struck me is that there are no details, no information on whether this is the story of any one particular child, or which specific conflict has orphaned this boy. In the absence of detail, this “no place” becomes “every place” in Africa, the terrifying Dark Continent.

After watching this ad several times (I don't recommend you try this), I feel 1) deranged and 2) hopeless, as though nothing I could ever do, much less donate a few dollars to MSF, could possibly have any effect on the vast, incomprehensible suffering in the world.

I also don't learn much from this video about the work that MSF does other than that they operate on helpless children in horrific circumstances and need our money. What is the goal of the video? If bad videos are justified by effectiveness, then how is it measured?

I asked the head of communications at MSF UK, Polly Markandya.

She told me that the ad was not intended as a direct fundraising campaign—they deliberately avoided listing a telephone number on screen. Rather, the idea was to “try and raise awareness among a general public audience of the kinds of situations and atrocities which we witness daily in our work and which are so easily ignored by people living comfortable lives in the UK.” MSF is gauging the impact by visits to their website.

Another video on their website, called “Make Your Mark” is more informative and less emotionally manipulative than “Boy.” But, given its more conventional style, it probably hasn’t attracted nearly as much publicity. After all, we haven’t just devoted an entire blog post to that one. But was all the attention really worth such an exploitative video?

*Thanks to Twitterer @IdealistNYC for pointing us to this video.

**This video has recently stirred up a fair amount of controversy in the UK, which you can follow on these blogs.