Is your NGO looking for innovative tactics to reach new Northern donors? Here’s one for the books. Last week, Save the Children released a video in which they dupe models into advocating for children’s rights. The video opens with a bunch of models on a set, prepping themselves for business as usual. The directors instruct them to sell whatever will appear on the cue cards by being sexy as they can. While the models put their art of seduction to work, the script suddenly changes from “lust is my mistress” to statistics about children’s poverty and death tolls. An obvious turnoff, but the models have to keep it hot. After some initial awkwardness and wonderment (“ehh … are you attracted to me right now?”) the self-rubbing becomes more hesitant (except for one guy, whose arousal—hands down—is the most authentic element of the whole clip), and the spectacle culminates in the models’ heartfelt conclusion that “we can’t make this issue sexy, but it deserves your attention”.
Here, watch it yourself.
The campaign, apparently, was built on Save the Children’s heightened frustration about the missing link between children’s suffering and sex appeal. As one of their communications people put it, “If only we can get people to hear these issues, but it is hard to make it sexy”. In other words, one of the world’s top independent charities for children thought that it would be a good idea to link trying-too-hard Euro-eroticism and raising money to save poor Third World children. Any discordance between the two was supposed to be eliminated by sentiment alone.
The result: in only 2 minutes and 18 seconds, development advocacy hit a new low. The problem with the video is not that the use of sex antics to save poor children’s lives is out of place. This tactic—arousing donors’ libidos in order to touch their hearts—is hardly revolutionary in the development world. It gained popularity after NGOs came under fire for their reliance on what was dubbed poverty porn: the practice of pathologizing hapless and starving children, and using images of this extreme otherness to draw in donors. Critics (mainly those from the South) of poverty porn complained that such images planted a highly essentialized and reductionist image of ‘the unfortunate Third World other’ in the minds of northern public. Another problem with targeting the North through emotional and moral appeals was that the cash flows that pictures of fly-covered babies generated were too unreliable. While these images produced the intended effect for a short time, the ‘difference’ between donor and victim, on which the strategy relied and capitalized, soon lead to donors’ compassion fatigue. The UN’s utterly dry development vocabulary (sustainability, anyone?) didn’t offer much gusto to get the masses fired up, (and paying up) either.
One solution to the problem was to get celebs on board; you know, the sexy entertainment type. Bono, the ever-shaded rockstar and self-declared poverty authority had of course loudly and proudly claimed a position at these frontlines ages ago. In 2007, having grown quite comfortable with the global prestige and credibility that the development frontlines tend to bestow on elite occupants, he felt comfortable enough to claim that what the world needed was the globalization of the revolutionary mix that he believed he embodied: adding some sex appeal to the business of saving lives. As Bono’s ill-advised logic and depoliticized focus on symptoms rather than causes of poverty were echoed both far and wide, we became accustomed to to watching sexy models and celebs speak on behalf of the poor—whom we learned to refer to as the ‘voiceless’. The problem with the celebrity-as-spokesperson, however, is that celebrities’ loud presences also come with silences and absences. With every shoot, every show and every spectacle of seduction, those crucial absences and silences become less noticeable.
The alternative of offering the children—for whom all this celebrity and sex appeal is being poured out—a platform to be their own spokespersons no longer makes sense to us. The Save the Children video tells their young beneficiaries: “you are simply not hot enough, and your stories are either too shocking or too boring. We have come to accept our inability to represent you, so this time we are not taking any risks. This time we are leaving you, your agency, and your ability to speak and define your own story out of it altogether. It’s for your own good”.
The NGO’s perception of future donors isn’t flattering either. Not even pretending to view them as people who can be educated, moved or mobilized, the NGO appeals to their lust, paternalistic benevolence and their eagerness to share sexy poverty videos on Facebook to quench their own moral thirst. It’s like they are saying: “We know what you want. Now pay like the shallow buffoon you are”.
What the new Sexy Development Discourse doesn’t seem to get is that the problem with the low appeal of terms like sustainability and other dry development talk is due to the fact that they are vague, impersonal and detached. Having unaware models fake sincerity to ‘interpret’ the lives of those who are reduced to one giant statistic is not going to bridge that divide.
And it’s not like there are no alternatives. Especially when it comes to children, who are generally perceived as innocent and savable, there are ways to move those who have access to money and power to action. Not by manufacturing and widening the difference between ‘them’ and ‘us’, but—surprise!—by showing that we are not, in fact, all that different. It’s the responsibility and the duty of NGOs like Save the Children to educate potential Western donors on both the causes of poverty and the humanity of their beneficiaries. Is there a place for celebrities at all? Sure. When they’re willing to tone down the egos and their volumes, and are prepared to swallow any misguided slogans, they can do great work. As we have written before, Colin Greenwood is a great example of a rock star who knows how to pull this one off. Let people like him be an example, rather than Bono.
And yeah. We beg you to leave the writhing models out of it, too.