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September 08, 2009

Stirring charity appeal...or 'aid porn'?

The British arm of Doctors Without Borders (MSF UK) has launched a provocative new advertisement that's worth a look.

It's known simply as "Boy" and it began airing last month in movie theaters across the UK. It's a one-minute wide shot of a bullet-riddled concrete house where, as a series of short titles gradually informs us, an MSF doctor is treating a wailing 5-year-old boy whose family has just been the victim of a vicious militia attack.

Watch the ad here:

The spot was created by McCann Erickson, a major British advertising firm, which has worked for MSF pro bono since 1995. Two independent theater advertisers, Pearl and Dean and Digital Cinema Media, are running the ad for free before movies rated suitable for people older than 15.

Figuring the ad would spark debate, MSF UK has been open about wanting to do something different:

It is our attempt to make a deliberate move away from some traditional charity advertising which can tend to focus on images of starving children. We have deliberately left the child nameless and not identified the country in order to protect his identity and to encourage viewers to realise that violence of this sort occurs beyond just the borders of a single country.

Some of the blogosphere's response has been scathing. The Road to the Horizon says that replicating a war zone in a studio and a faking the child's cries are in terribly bad taste, and Aid Watch says that it plays on tired stereotypes: "In the absence of detail, this 'no place' becomes 'every place' in Africa, the terrifying Dark Continent."

I can't agree with the first point; it's an advertisement, and a clearly stylized one at that, not a documentary. I take Aid Watch's point, although the broad generalities of the violence in the ad also occur in war zones from Sri Lanka to South America.

A friend of mine, who works for a different aid agency, wrote on Facebook:

Some are saying it is 'aid porn'; I think it hits the mark. It shows what is really happening in many war zones worldwide, the utter despair and tragedy, ...and yes, the need for funds for emergency response. I don't think, though, that a similar ad would be appropriate for long-term development fundraising.

There are generally two types of charity ads, and I salute MSF for avoiding (1) the starving-baby cliche and (2) the genre I loathe much more, which is We Save Dark-Skinned People. This kind of ad glorifies the aid worker for his courage and selflessness -- we have to live on PowerBars and get our clothes dirty, you know -- while making the tragedy itself a total afterthought. This is truly aid porn, and for a particularly galling example, check out MSF's own "t-shirt" ad.

After an advertising website, Osocio, called the new "Boy" spot "heartbreaking video with bad copy" and said "the call to action doesn’t have any connection with the rape and murder," dozens of people posted responses.  One person said that MSF, rather than moving away from "traditional charity advertising" that features starving babies, have produced "an image of a child suffering in an even more upsetting way than a photograph of a starving child (by using audio)."

To me, however, "Boy" isn't as exploitative as the pictures of starving children, or as grotesquely worshipful of the aid workers -- precisely because we don't see faces. And for what MSF is trying to do here, which is raise money for its efforts worldwide, we don't need to know where this particular disaster is happening. The fact is, this kind of militia violence occurs in war zones across the world.

This kind of ad is designed to shock the viewer, and I have no doubt it'll be a slap in the face to a comfortable, well-fed moviegoer who just wanted to enjoy "Transformers" on a Saturday night. My main question about the ad is this: I don't know how much money you make by shaming middle-class people into thinking they're inadequate -- or at least not as brave as an aid worker: Yes, the doctors at MSF are heroes, as are thousands of charity workers around the world. No, you are not a hero. You are wrist deep into your tub of buttered popcorn.

In the end, the ad might be as offensive as it is stirring.


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Somewhere in Africa was written by McClatchy correspondent Shashank Bengali, who covered sub-Saharan Africa from 2005 to 2009. He's now based in Washington, D.C., as a national correspondent.

Read Shashank's stories at news.mcclatchy.com or send him a story idea.


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