Every now and then duckrabbit invites people to post here who have more interesting things to say about life than we do. Today its the turn of Pete Masters, MSF Uk’s web guru, a charity that provides medical support in response to humanitarian situations.
Basically they patch people up and save lives (and do a lot more besides).
I became a big fan of MSF last year when they were the only humanitarian organization to speak out about the abuse displaced people in Kenya were suffering in the camps where I was working.
Pete has agreed to open up a debate about MSF’s new and dare I say it controversial cinema advert.
This is important because believe me there is a struggle going on in many charities right now.
Communication units have traditionally been set up to raise the profile of charities, with the main aim of raising cash and making the organization look good.
Essentially they are PR teams. Good people who sometimes do a bad thing.
Distort the way that punters like me and you look at the developing world.
I know because when I first went to live in Ethiopia at first I was left wondering where Africa had gone. The truth was that the reality was so far removed from what I had been led to expect it was mind mashing.
Charlie Beckett, Director of Polis (a London think-tank), recently suggested a new model for how charity comms teams should communicate. One based on basic journalistic principles of truth, as opposed to the spin of PR. He’s onto something. Why do people trust the BBC more than any other news outlet? Because the organization, whilst allowing massive freedom to its journalists and programme makers also have a tight and defining set of journalistic values. Values that are non-negotiable in its output (although maybe not in its PR department!). If charities really want to make the world a better place they could do a lot worse then applying these basic journalistic principles to their communication teams.
If you want change to be real and long lasting it’s better not to manipulate people, but persuade them with truth and build a relationship of trust.
Afterall why should you trust a charity that promotes themselves over an understanding of the lives of the people they are trying to help? Why should you trust a charity that speaks for its beneficiaries rather then finding ways for their beneficiaries to communicate directly with you? Why should you trust a charity that portrays the world in which they work as full of victims and that the only way of saving lives is to give money to them, them and no-one else? Most of all, why aren’t they asking themselves these questions?
They are important questions that Pete at MSF seems to have been given the freedom to discuss. This is rare and it says a lot about what a mature organization MSF is. Perhaps even rarer is that I get the sense that he is genuinely listening. He’s right to because they need your money to help others.
Which leads us to MSF’s controversial new cinema advert.
This is your rare chance to tell MSF what you think and to shape in some small way how they communicate with the world. Don’t let duckrabbit down. This stuff is important. People in developing countries care desperately about the way they are portrayed, some I hope will have their say on this blog. Lets start a real conversation. Over to you Pete:
This week has been great. It started on Friday when MSF UK’s new cinema ad was launched nationwide. I work for MSF in the UK as the web editor and I was unsure about how the ad would go down. So, I just thought, I’d ask the people I chat to through twitter, facebook, blogs, email every day and see what their opinion is.
Turns out their opinions are massively different! And I ended up hearing from people I didn’t know as much as from people I did.
I had a particularly interesting conversation on the Osocio blog with a person who labeled themselves msfdesserter in their first post (I only mention the name because it was such a statement). They also said that the ad had prompted them to cancel their monthly gift to MSF. Now, this is not a ‘name and shame’ exercise because msfdesserter has every right to his opinion and to cancel his payment. If a charity I supported really disappointed me (especially if I thought they were wasting funds), my reaction would be the same.
But, msfdesserter took the time to state their opinion publicly, giving me the chance to respond and we had a real conversation. I was able to explain that both the ad and the showing didn’t cost MSF anything. Moreover, what was said gave me food for thought, gave me new perspective on the ad and has inspired me to think differently about MSF’s communications generally.
I make decisions every day about how to communicate with 1000s of people without asking any of them, so this sort of feedback is gold dust and it felt so refreshing being able to discuss it.
Even better, the discussion prompted my colleague Fiona to make her first ever comment on a blog. Fiona works in the office as a fundraiser while in the UK but is also an experienced field nurse (read her letter home from Congo here) and it was great to see the boundaries between MSF’s medical work and people who support it, melt away).
The advert in question isn’t perfect. It looks like it’s a bit of a Marmite situation – you either like it or hate it. But even if we find out it doesn’t ‘work’, the experience for MSF of directly engaging with people (and visa versa) and having a meaningful and open dialogue is priceless.
I wish people would comment on everything we do…
duckrabbit readers over to you …
RESPONSE (please note it’s easier to follow the comment threads on the actual post itself):
I disagree with Pete about Marmite. I love it and hate it.
I think the use of a locked-off video camera shot is incredibly powerful. Beautiful in fact. The child’s cries got my attention immediately and went right through me. The four sentences that appear on the screen deepened my attention – and pissed me off.
1. One of our doctors is treating a 5-year-old boy.
2. Militia have just raped his two sisters.
3. Then clubbed his parents to death.
4. We can’t operate without your help.
There is no doubt that there is something gripping and moving about this, but it also made me feel sad, powerless and angry. Angry with MSF.
Who is that boy? Are they real cries? If so – do you really think you should have used that audio Pete?
Where is this? What have I learned about the place and the situation? What can I do to help? How about showing me the actual positive results of the work of MSF instead of this manipulative piece. I think that’s it – it left me feeling manipulated.
Oh – and if I had seen this at the cinema – I would probably have ruined my night out. Ok, ok – I know my night out is insignificant compared to plight of the child you exploited to make this piece, but you are trying to get me on side right? Wrong on many levels.
I applaud your openness and the fact that you have engaged in a public conversation about this and I hope you take something positive away.
Thanks to duckrabbit for the chance to comment. And good luck to MSF with your (more appropriate) future media campaigns.
ANTONIO (worked in development comms in Ethiopia)
The first thing I would like to say is that not many NGOs take their time to speak open and directly to readers, contributors or public in general. I personally appreciate this gesture and I reckon it says a lot about MSF. Therefore, thanks for this opportunity, Pete.
Regarding the ad, I am afraid I can not say much good about it. MSF will certainly get people commenting on the different interpretations or angles the ad has, but this is not an advert about a fizzy drink where the most important thing is to put the name of the product in everyone’s head. Here we are showing a reality about a country, a boy, a family portrayed through the kid’s crying. We are again falling in the same clichéd type of communication I reckon we should stay away from.
The advert is clearly trying to shock people but it is not explaining what MSF really does. Why is so important the boy’s dramatic situation? If his family would be alright and alive, wouldn’t MSF doctors operate him (what I guess they are doing, although we don’t know why) anyways? So, why do we need the morbid elements? The only reason I can think about is the manipulation of the audience’s feelings.
I know reality in Africa is hard, but you are just showing the most terrible side of it and that is not the entire truth of the story. We have to be honest with those collaborating with MSF and I know first hand that MSF is very transparent with its work, that’s why I am quite disappointed with them.
The end doesn’t justify the means. This advert is blunt but unnecessary.
However I still think MSF rocks and that’s my biggest motivation to write these words here today. I feel privileged as I know someone from the organization is going to read this and, as I said before, it is not something we can often see. Thanks again.
DANIEL (South African Photographer)
My personal belief is that the current marketing approaches used by aid agencies isn’t working. I’ve already said my bit about portraying Africa and its people in a better light, so won’t go into that again but when you see Comic Relief using the tried and trusted approach of showing some poor black kid suffering, with the melodramatic music in the background and some C list celeb asking for your help, you start to wonder who you are helping.
There is an important role to be played by agencies in showing the public what has been achieved with their donations, now more than ever before as donations are made harder due to the numerous economic problems faced by many.
Don’t get me wrong, the work that aid agencies do is vital, i’ve seen the benefits of this first hand. What I think the public might be tired of is that tried and trusted approach used by agencies.
This ad isn’t that bad, i think it’s easy to be an armchair critic when you haven’t really been in situations like the one portrayed here. The ad makes you think there is a poor black kid behind that wall, but you can’t see anything so you rely on the audio, and that’s where the link is made. Unlike the Comic Relief approach, we don’t have some poor sod pushed in front of the camera, with the flies around his/her mouth and made to look sad.
From a personal point of view, I’d love MSF to maybe look at producing ads that show the happier side as a result of their vital work. Yes, Africa has issues and yes this is a common scene up north, but there are other scenes out there, so why not let the public know the other side.
As I mentioned before, a sad black child rams home the message more than anything else. We in the media are all guilty of abusing this and it has to stop.
Pete, how about you let me work with the MSF and produce work that shows the happy side to the work you all do?
There’s an old saying… “you can’t make an omelette – without cracking some eggs”. Well, this ad certainly cracks more than its share – and fair enough in my opinion. Coming from a background in advertising, I have no problem with controversial, challenging techniques to break through audience apathy. In fact, I’d go so far to say we need even harder hitting media.
Lets face it – we’re not selling shampoo here. White-bread westerners, snuggling down to watch the latest “Harry Potter” instalment deserve to choke on their M&M’s watching this. The issue’s too serious to be wrapped in cotton wool anymore.
I was interested in something Ben said… “Why should you trust a charity that speaks for its beneficiaries rather then finding ways for their beneficiaries to communicate directly with you?”. Following this theme, I’d love to see more of those affected filming/recording their own stories for these campaigns. They CAN do it – so give them a chance – rather than filtering the message through boardrooms and focus groups. African’s have been telling stories a lot longer than us lot – and they dont need a media degree to do it.
…And while we’re on the subject. Here’s one of my all time favourite development spots – the “safe water” one with Jennifer Connelly. It’s great ’cause the viewer can easily relate to it – without having to imagine an alien situation in a country they couldn’t even find on a map.
ADAM WESTBROOK (top future journalism blogger)
I think I agree with the sentiment of the other commenters on this one.
To the video first off, no doubt it is powerful (to whoever made it, your use of audio is fantastic). But like Phil Maguire said you haven’t told us what country this is (it looks like northern Iraq, but the captions suggest Central Africa). I guess what that does is reduce it to a cinematic emotional punch, which sadly western audiences are all too used too. It has a temporary punch, but I think it would be forgotten by the time the credits roll on the movie they’ve actually gone to see. I’m assuming this is faked as well, which undermines it slightly further.
This is great though because it gives us a chance to talk about how charities tell the world what they do. I think there’s real opportunity for journalists and NGOs to work together (just like Duckrabbit, Weyo, Media Storm and Story4 and many others are doing). It offers a real chance for indepth reporting which the msm don’t have time or money for – but just the type of reporting which is needed to end the negative image of Africa which Daniel quite rightly says still exists. Duckrabbit nailed it in the intro – charities must stop PRing us, and start telling us the real truth.
But Pete it’s great you’re taking responses on this. DuckRabbit – thanks for opening the debate up.
JOHN BENNETT (author)
Personally speaking, I don’t think MSF is particularly well-known in the UK, and as a consequence, I’d have been tempted to lead with a more positive message about the work they do, and the successes they’ve had. I’m not sure the ad really conveys who MSF are to a wider British audience who don’t know them. Having said that, shocking is always going to get more editorial media attention, so I guess it’s always a tempting tactic.
However, if I were MSF, now I’ve got people’s attention, I’d follow this up pretty quickly with a more explanatory and upbeat piece about the work MSF do and the value of contributions, etc.
CIARA LEEMING (journalist/photojournalist)
Like some of the other commentators, I have slightly mixed feelings about this.
Much as the whole concept of PR and marketing doesn’t sit comfortably with my professional instincts, I understand that charities need to fundraise and to get their message across. On occasions I have worked with NGOs to provide the materials to do this – but I’ve always worked completely as a journalist and been given the freedom to cover an issue as I see fit. I’m pleased you haven’t wasted huge sums making this and securing time at the cinemas, but I see the need to have impact….and this ad certainly does have impact for me, although quite what the lasting impression is I’m not yet sure.
Yet, as people have said, it lacks context and actually tells us nothing about MSF and what you really do. We probably know of this NGO because we work within the media and related disciplines. My parents, for example, have probably never heard of you and just wouldn’t get anything out of this.
I’m not personally convinced that everything needs to be hard-hitting if it is to have some kind of impact.
Also, I can’t help but feel it’s actually quite a patronising advert. Patronising to the viewer – who presumably doesn’t merit a fuller explanation of what you do, or the context for what we are seeing.
But more importantly, perhaps, I find it patronising towards the communities you are working with. Maybe I’m being unfair and putting in meanings that shouldn’t be there – but it leaves me with the feeling that this situation would be a bleak pit of hopelessness without the heroic efforts of MSF…I dunno, it just leaves me with a slightly uneasy feeling – that I have quite a lot when thinking of the large-scale NGO “industry” – that it all smacks a little bit of modern-day cultural imperialism. But that’s probably more my own hang-up.
The real heroes to me are not MSF staff – although I’m sure they are all very lovely, and kind and caring. For me they are the people from these communities who live their often difficult lives with great dignity and minimal fuss. They are, in my limited experience, far from the victims that they are all too often portrayed as.
Why not show us some of their faces and how MSF is making their lives better…and telling the stories of some of your local staff? Why not in fact just use real genuine journalism – through words, photography, video, audio or whatever means you want? The medium matters less than the ethics and balance that underpins it.
As a potential supporter I think I’d be more likely to give seeing that results – no matter how small scale – are being achieved, than if I would if I see a situation apparently without hope.
Les Neuhaus (Print Reporter and Photojournalist)
The advert is definitely powerful. Chills went up my spine in hearing the crying … the billowing smoke in the background and the gunfire rattling off also helped to catch my attention. The simplicity of the four statements/sentences is perfectly measured, in my opinion. This doesn’t need a voiceover of someone asking for my money. The words, laid against the whole scene, say enough.
The drawings on the wall were powerful, too … images of war. I have seen and photographed similar child renderings in Sudan, Chad and the Congo.
The ad pissed me off, too … in a way that I wanted to do something. But what? Even as a journalist sometimes I feel helpless and that I sometimes use the suffering of others to profit and “make a name for myself,” never really knowing what happens later to those I quote and photograph. That can be haunting.
However, I have seen up close and personal MSF’s good work … in the Chadian capital, N’Djamena, for example,
in April 2006 following a coup attempt. MSF had an encampment set up in a city hospital where I was interviewing two young men — civilians, not rebels or government army soldiers — who were painfully trying to recover in the crushing heat after having their legs blown off while being caught up in the melee.
I support MSF and their work. If you have to jar some people’s nerves to wake them up out of their comfortable existence with an end purpose of raising cash to help the suffering masses, then so be it.
Some might definitely take offense to the advert. But they are precisely the ones who should be targeted to part with some of their money.
If this advert was running in the U.S., you’d probably start seeing a big influx of cash into MSF’s coffers quickly (providing le masse could get their head around it in 60 seconds). But I think those kind of ads work, despite being potenitally perceived as “insensitive.”
The world is an insensitive place. Some folks have more to give than others. They should be targeted with ads like these.
Hell, the ads may even inspire a new generation of more humanitarian-minded people to “get out there.”
In final, I would like to know how much of the video is real or fake … the billowing smoke, location, audio (of both the crying and gunfire). Even if it is staged, IT IS REAL. It happens all the time, just like that. Lay people should be pointed out about the difference, but at the same time, they should know the reality, too.
Liked it a lot. Dramatic, yet subtle; sets the scenario, then allows you to deliver the images (which we’ve all already seen) and message to yourself rather than having them thrust in your face (yet, again).
Unlike still photo journalism (which can be said to suffer the same “malaise” a hundredfold), the video medium by its very nature allows greater flexibility as to presentation, experimentation and all around creativity. And it needs to continually incorporate, expand and renew this flexibility since any one approach, including this one, will grow tired fast.
First thing to say is that this is not MSF talking. This is Pete who works for MSF and I cannot speak on behalf of the organisation (nor for McCann Erickson who made the ad). My opinions are mine and mine alone.
The cries you hear are a patient that our teams treated in the field. The cries are real, but I don’t really understand how this is an issue. We have not identified the boy or where he is from and I think this is less exploitative (of the patient) than the type of ad Daniel talks about here, where the malnourished child stares into the camera. For me there is more truth here and more dignity. No classical music, no slow motion, no emotive voice over.
I understand the point that there is no country or context referenced and no real mention of what MSF’s role is (apart from treating the boy). But, this was a different approach and a very deliberately different one. I think it would be fair to say that MSF UK’s communications generally are honest and informative, in terms of context and outcomes (whether good or bad). However, this was a chance for MSF, thanks to McCann donating their time and the free ad space we were offered, to try something different.
The ad is shocking – the crying sends shivers down my spine and leaves me cold. But, it is real. And because of the horrible, chilling nature of it, I disagree with Adam when he says that it will be “forgotten by the time the credits roll”. My feelings are more along the lines of Phil’s “it would ruin my night”. I personally would prefer that the ad ruined your night than didn’t even register in it.
Brave, uncompromising, powerful. Not cheap. Successful ad.
Part of this success is due to the fact that it doesn’t need to answer all those questions – that is what our debate here is for … and hopefully the debates across cinema car parks and front rooms in the UK.
This ad does not detail the precise scope of MSF activities, outline the history of MSF philosophy, present the aftermath for the fictional family, clarify whether the screams are real or not. But this is not its purpose. This ad is an introduction to the imperative work of MSF.
Why the ad works in introducing MSF’s work abroad, and why it feels like a punch in the stomach, is because it deals with truths without over-explaining them.
MSF works predominantly in fractured societies and war zones.
MSF works in less than ideal conditions.
MSF works with people whose lives have been torn apart.
MSF works to provide the essential first response medical care.
MSF works “to patch people up” despite the long-term psychological trauma conflict brings.
MSF does its part in shaping the existences of human lives – and this is the kicker, that work is fragile AND DEPENDENT on whether we do our part in donating money. This ad does not let us off the hook.
One other thing not mentioned yet. Surely, our discomfort stems from the matter-of-fact declarations of prerequisite action in each of the four sentences. To bring us so close narratively with the heinous actions of the militia is to explain how terrible terrible acts are common in areas of conflict.
We are one sentence from murder and two from rape.
MSF is asking us to donate money to the worst of situations. MSF doesn’t have all the answers, but it has its mandate.
MSF asks us to make a more engaged commitment than the usual altruist shot one gets from donating to a cause that “guarantees”, glosses or romanticises solutions to the problem.
One final thought. 99% of viewers are going to assume this is Africa. It could be the Middle East or parts of Asia given the landscape. We know that MSF works on every continent. Is this ad an unwelcome addition to misunderstanding about Africa? Is MSF at all responsible for the visual leaps & presumptions of the viewer?
MATTY C (Argentinean Journalist)
I’m guessing that the small but influential minority of people who read the foreign news in the broadsheets, will assume the setting is Darfur. Everyone else will think, ’some hellhole in Africa’. Fair enough. Vagueness is probably a virtue here, as the very name ‘Doctors Without Borders’ suggests an organisation that tries to stay above the geopolitical fray. Either that or a group of medics without access to a good bookstore. (It’s better in the French, isn’t it?)
Like any good horror sequence, this ad upped my pulse rate and made me feel claustrophobic, nauseous and dry-mouthed. It has a kind of palpitating intensity that is easily mistaken for effectiveness. But for all the reasons Phil Maguire spells out, it didn’t put me in the ‘giving vein’.
The ad seems to me flashy and shallow, provoking disgust rather than rage. It is fashionably nihilistic in the manner of a Chapman brothers installation – but without the wit.
Something else. A number of the pundits on this thread seem to agree that, whatever the advertisement’s flaws, if it succeeds in – I quote Les – “[jarring] some people’s nerves to wake them up out of their comfortable existence”, it will have achieved something valuable. This is another piece of hip groupthink that goes up in smoke upon contact with reality.
Can you cite any empirical evidence to support the claim that people are more likely to donate money to an NGO after “choking on their M&Ms” (Sam) than on other occasions? If you can, please post a link. If you can’t, please steer clear of clichés.
Kudos to Pete for having the balls to come on here and defend the ad. That’s the spirit.
I’m thoroughly jaded, inter-texted, media savvy, and sensitive to the politics of representation. My initial reaction came in the form of tears. My second reaction was to figure out what to write here. My third reaction will be to set up a monthly direct debit. My fourth reaction will be to give my daughter a big hug.
It worked on me.
FLORA AFRICAN JOURNALIST
I work a lot with visual storytelling(TV & photography). My dilemma with telling stories of children, with children has never gotten a solution. The MSF video does not of course promote their work. I do not get from it a sense of what they do… even though I’m aware of their work.
It is however a powerful piece that reminds me of the many times I’ve felt helpless in such a situation (telling a story of a community that needs help).
The child crying haunts just like all children crying do even when they are not suffering. I think that the boy is exploited. We don’t see his face but the lack of detail in the piece… the information that is general takes from the piece… Daniel (commented earlier) already has an idea what continent it is happening in… South America? Africa? Asia? I don’t know. I quite frankly don’t care… These issues are usually the same anyway.
There’s dignity for the boy in the advert, there’s enough emotion to make us care even for a little while. That boy’s story is told… but MSF’s work not really highlighted. Did he live? Is he getting emotional support to stop him from being the militia 10-15 years later? That’s what people want to support. If that could come through, I think it would be a much better piece. Otherwise everyone is left to feel hopeless.
But look on the brighter side… it got us talking about the issue.
The second Ad… now that would make one give. Because they’d know what they are giving for. That’s the MSF that we in Africa and everywhere else they work know about and appreciate.
Thankyou for all those who have commented and especially to Pete who was brave enough to but himself forward, perhaps not quite aware of what a passionate community of thinkers duckrabbit draws. Lest there be any sense of ambiguity MSF are a charity that duckrabbit both greatly admires and supports. That said I think this is an important debate, perhaps in some ways less for MSF then many other international charities.
For those of you not aware of their work here’s a very different perspective. I’d be proud to wear the t-shirt (as long as me mam gives it a wash first)