KONY 2012: A mindless campaign, or a campaign for the mindless?
There’s a lot of fuss right now about the Kony 2012 campaign ran by non-profit organisation Invisible Children. In case you live under a rock and haven’t heard about it, it’s a viral campaign based around a 30 minute video that serves as a rabble-rouser in order to get people to ‘act’. The activism in this case revolves around buying bracelets, t-shirts and a kit full of posters which you are expected to paste up in your area on a specific night, all in order to ‘raise awareness’ about Joseph Kony — leader of the Ugandan guerrilla group known as the LRA (Lord’s Resistance Army). Formed in 1987, the LRA with Kony as it’s leader is accused of widespread human rights violations, including murder, abduction, mutilation, sexual enslavement of women and children and forcing an estimated 60,000 children to participate in hostilities.
There’s currently dozens of news articles covering something of a backlash, many alleging dubious use of funding, questioning the timing of the campaign (Kony probably hasn’t even been in Uganda since 2006), scepticism regarding its efficacy, the motives of the films producers and the arrogance to assume it takes young white Americans to ‘save’ Africa. You can find all that on all the regular news outlets, what I want to talk about is the campaign strategy and implementation.
The video is slick, using all the emotional touch points we’re used to seeing employed by large consumer brands. It begins with a dramatic overview of planet Earth, grandparents talk to their grandkids on Skype and share videos on YouTube. We’re shown images of the Arab Spring and how Twitter helped it’s cause. A woman gives birth and we’re reminded how important our children are with a series of ‘cute’ family videos. We then hear the harrowing story of a boy whose brother was taken and killed. There are tears and the screen fades to black. The narrator promises the child he “is going to stop them”, he then tells us “exactly how we are going to do it”.
Except he doesn’t really, we’re just fed the usual ‘raising awareness’ rhetoric. By raising awareness we are told that the US government will be forced to step in and do something about this problem. All we have to do is buy some bracelets, t-shirts and a kit full of posters to put up, spread the word on social networks and we will have, overnight, raised awareness which will ensure US military involvement in Africa. We’re not expected to question whether encouraging military collusion with a notoriously corrupt African state is something we should be doing, nor are we told that Kony has been very much off the radar and hasn’t even been seen in Uganda since 2006.
So how does the campaign work, and how does it fail? It has certainly achieved an incredible amount of publicity with support from celebrities such as Oprah Winfrey, P. Diddy and Rihanna, and teenagers and young people are spreading the word on Facebook and Twitter. The Kony 2012 website has put sales of the kit on hold due to high demand, I assume this means they have sold out. Ease seems to be the key here, we can all now be feel-good pseudo social activists and all we have to do is buy something from a website and send a tweet or two to help continue ‘raising awareness’.
But what issues does the campaign actually raise awareness of? The only messaging on the posters is “KONY 2012″ and the strap line “Stop at nothing”, or on an alternative poster we’re shown the merging logos of the Republican and Democrat parties with the line “One thing we can all agree on”. That’s it, that’s your lot. Utterly meaningless. We are told that the aim is simply to make Kony famous. This guy has been running around with his militia killing people for 25 years, ‘fame’ may help Lady Gaga’s cause, I’m not convinced it’s the best way to bring justice to African warlords.
So, on the day these posters will suddenly appear on our streets, if we’re not already aware who Kony is, we’re expected to what? To google his name and buy some more bracelets? Aside from the half hour video that provides no real information on the situation in Uganda today, there is zero further information about Kony, Uganda, or anything else for that matter, just a donate button and purchasing options, “yummmmmm.. things”. Awareness is not really raised at all, we’re just given a name. If anything, Joseph Kony will simply become—overnight—a nationwide graffiti king, all thanks to the American youth. The posters even have a rather edgily, if not somewhat dated, stencil style illustration of Kony, putting him alongside the usual icons of evil and terror, Bin Laden and Hitler. Ironically, Nike used the exact same style imagery several years ago to make heroes of Brazilian football players.
Vimeo stats indicate that at this point, 14.9 million people have viewed the video, though it’s unclear how many watched all 30 minutes of it. But that doesn’t necessarily indicate success, there’s clearly a backlash and I believe it’s almost entirely down to the superficiality of the campaign messaging—in that—there is no messaging. There is no real education. The campaign almost solely targets a ‘hip’ American youth that may be keen to try their hand at being Shepard Fairey for an evening, street art once again used as a convenient way to grab the attention of a seemingly predictable youth. But is that really true? Isn’t it incredibly patronising to assume that young people are just willing to get on board with your cause simply because you tell them they should and that you can sell them some ‘gritty’ posters? To add to the ridiculousness the organisers even chose a date (4.20) that celebrates cannabis culture. I guess the expectation is that these kids are going to spend the afternoon getting blunted and then run through the streets pasting up posters. Well who knows, maybe it will happen… if they’re not too stoned. Maybe they should have included some Kony 2012 chocolate bars in the kit.
The strategy is one of ‘trickle-up’, it functions not to provide real awareness but solely to get money out of pockets and then that money can hopefully be used to somehow bring some change, we’re not really told exactly how, but it likely involves lining the pockets of Washington lobbyists so they can get the go ahead to send more US soldiers into Africa. We’re expected to believe that this kind of hollow ‘awareness’ and vapid activism on one evening of one year is really going to bring about worthy change in what is in fact a very complicated political landscape. I don’t buy it.
Awareness campaigns need to be treated with tact, and audiences need treating with respect. Treating an entire demographic as a bunch of mindless hipsters who will get on board with your cause not through want of genuine awareness and knowledge but rather through the belief that making something look ‘cool’ is enough, is a wasted opportunity. This campaign is arrogant, superficial and based on short term fad interest and vanity. Though we can assume it has raised a lot of money, if not awareness. Let’s just hope they spend it where it can make a difference rather than the $1.1 million spent on personal travel and $400k on nice new offices in San Diego. I guess you can’t really judge the ‘success’ of a campaign without complete transparency as to the objective.