Advertising and humanitarian aid

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Humanitarian aid organizations rely on advertising and communications just like commercial businesses.

Yesterday, I had the pleasure of taking part in a guided tour l’Ujjef organized for its members of an expo at the Musée des arts décoratifs. The expo, La Publicité au secours des grandes causes, was a retrospective on how advertising has raised and shaped awareness of major humanitarian causes since the early part of the last century. The exhibit runs until May 9th, 2010.

A round table took place after the visit, asking  “Should and can humanitarian aid put itself on display?” Panel members included Bruno David, Founding President of Communication Sans Frontières, Rony Brauman, former President of MSF-France and Research Director of the Médecins Sans Frontières Foundation, Benoît Heilbrunn, semiologist and Professor of Marketing at the ESCP-EAP, and Oliviero Toscani, a well-known and sometimes controversial photographer (recall the Benetton campaigns in the 1990s).

Having just seen often raw and violent representations depicting faithfully some of the horrors in our world, I was on another wavelength than that of much of the lofty intellectual exchanges taking place on the small stage. A contemporary video clip on violence towards women, among others, was fresh in my mind as well as the guide’s chilling story that that very morning, a young man in his twenties has busted out laughing watching it.

How faithful and how revealing must a consciousness-raising campaign be to be able to touch viewers today? Where is the line between decency and exploitation? Should these campaigns follow business advertising’s trends or find a voice of its own? Is there a difference between creating a need in consumers to sell a product and raising awareness to sell a cause? Can a public authority dictate what should or should not be shown and should it? And now that sustainable development and ethical business practices are all the rage, how great is the risk that humanitarian causes are going to be increasingly used for commercial ends? These are some of the myriad questions inherent in the debate.

Given my state of mind after seeing the exhibit, I particularly enjoyed some of Oliviero’s remarks and questions. His premise is that everything is political, and that of course speaks to the political scientist in me. Here are some pearls I jotted down (the translations from French are mine):

[Political] Power needs communications to succeed at imposing its will. Communications need the [political] power’s permission to be able to speak out.

The modern photographer does not take pictures. He creates images.

At what distance must the problem be for one to get involved?

When you watch an ad on TV or a longer clip at the movies, when you receive countless direct mail fundraising campaigns at home, what resonates with you? Does humour catch your attention? Are you moved by and feel guilty at the sight of starving children?  Are you more responsive to offbeat communication styles? Do you think that, for each era, public opinion’s view of what should or should not be shown or said changes? Does it differ from one culture to another? As you write copy for or translate humanitarian aid campaigns, do you take that into consideration?

The floor is yours. I’d love to hear your views.


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  • Thanks for this very thought-provoking post, Patricia! I agree with all of your insights, and I also think that in part, the “heartstring-grabbing” aspect has to do with our own sympathies and persuasions. For example I’m a vegetarian and I really like the PETA style: blunt but not gross, if you want to call it that. For example a simple photo of a baby chick that says “I am not a nugget,” a photo of a celebrity with their famous dog that says “If you wouldn’t wear your dog, why would you wear fur?” etc. On the other hand, I find that the fundraising ads that are intended to really shock the reader (i.e. people with marked deformities) achieve that goal only once. I don’t find myself really mulling the issue over as I would if the ad were raising a real moral dilemma.

  • […] Lane at Intercultural Zone has a very thought-provoking post on Advertising and humanitarian aid. As Patricia points out, humanitarian aid advertising (and the translation thereof) is even […]