A few weeks ago I watched the ‘Red Nose Day‘, an annual TV show in the UK that collects funds for development projects. IDS fellow Spencer Henson wrote a blog on the apparent disconnect between the high levels of donation for such events and UK citizens’ scepticism on keeping the target of spending 0.7% of national income on aid. As for me, I got caught by the images used, namely helpless children. I went to sleep that night wondering how much development communication had really evolved in the last decades.
Some days ago, a colleague passed me the article ‘Post-humanitarianism: humanitarian communication beyond a politics of pity‘ (2010). I was fascinated by the read. The author, LSE fellow Lilie Chouliaraki, suggested three types of appeal used in humanitarian and development communication. Type number 1, the ‘shock effect’, may be familiar. An early example is the Red Cross/Life magazine photos on the 1951 Bihar (Indian) famine showing starving children, old women calling out ‘Sir, we are dying’ and a begging mother with a child in her arms. With increased criticism and ethical controls on these images, a more ‘positive image’ type of appeal emerged in the late 80s. These are images of children smiling or farmers with newly acquired farming tools. They can be easily found in most of current sponsorship ads.
One would think that starving children and smiling children are pretty opposed ways of communicating. Yet Chouliaraki sustains they are not. They are in fact the two sides of the same coin. Both use photorealism in their format and are emotion-oriented (guilt or gratitude) in their content.
It is here that Chouliaraki’s article suggests the emergence of a third ‘post-emotional’ type of appeal, which breaks with previous ones in both format and content. The format defies photorealism and experiments with a range of artistic methods. The content moves from using emotions to using branding (i.e. of a renowned NGO) to attract the spectator. A paradigmatic case is Amnesty’s ad ‘Bullet. The Execution’, which won the ad production prize at Cannes Festival in 2006. The use of popular TV stars in development communication and campaigning could also be seen to follow this post-emotional trend. In short, it is the message’s format and spokesperson what validates the message itself, more than its content.
Pretty different this time from the other two, one would think. Yet Chouliaraki objects again. All three types still transmit a disgraceful context ‘there’ while the sole action expected from the European spectator ‘here’ is to feel attracted (by pity or by brand) and to donate to solve the matter. The sufferers are depicted as perpetually awaiting the spectator’s generosity, portraying development as a gift from Europe to elsewhere. None of the three types opts to explain at least one of the many reasons that create the unequal situation in the first place. None addresses, in this sense, the limitations of development interventions.
Chouliaraki’s article concludes here, with the description of these three types of appeal. With current initiatives like the Red Nose Day show or Kony 2012, one would think, yes that must be it – development communication has not really advanced much further. But perhaps you may have in your inbox, as I do, one of those emails asking to ‘sign the petition’. Most of these do not seek (only) our money, but our ‘click’ – a click to show ideological support to a cause; to lobby a decision-maker, MP, bank or firm. Other petitions even take a step further: they ask you to sign but also to change something in your lifestyle.
For instance, the Clean Clothes Campaign (2010) explains how jeans produced with the abrasive technique of sandblasting have toxic effects in the Bangladeshi female workers that make them. Besides appeals for e.g. lobbying those firms using sandblasting and asking governments to regulate on the practice, the campaign asks us to stop buying that type of trousers. In the same line, the Bank Secrets Campaign (2009) lists those banks investing in human right abuses such as polluting powers, controversial weapons, and repressive regimes. It then asks us to move our money to ethical banks and to organise chats, stalls and video-debates besides more lobby-based appeals like ‘discuss with a banker’ and ‘send an e-card’.
Are petition appeals different from previous ones? Perhaps not on the format. Petitions can be as creative as post-emotional type appeals (i.e. caricatures) but they don’t really suggest anything aesthetically new. Yet in terms of content, they do. They are political. They engage the spectator in an intellectual exercise instead of an emotional or consumerist one. They present a cause-effect message between the ‘here’ of the spectator and the ‘there’ of the sufferer, showing that at least one of the causes of the other side’s distress originates in the spectator’s own context (i.e. a MP decision, a consumption pattern).
Petitions have their own constraints. Lobby-type ones may become repetitive and bring a certain ‘petition fatigue’. They also miss out on self-reflection and personal change, and may even remind us of the immediacy and superficiality of post-emotional, consumerist modes (‘email this MP and done’). Conversely, lifestyle-type appeals are less efficient on tackling urgent actions than, say, crowd bombardment of a MP’s inbox. Both types seem thus complementary. For instance, one-off, massive, urgent petitions can be matched with longer-term pledges on the same cause by more committed, self-organised groups. What seems important in any case is that appeals use both consumer and citizen power to put pressure not only on those firms and banks operating unjust practices but also on states, the ultimate regulatory and decision-making bodies.
All in all, petitions are just petitions. They rely on large numbers saying ‘no’ all at once and are thus meant to be limited and timely to a particular cause. We can help save workers from sandblasting today, but forget their overall work precariousness tomorrow. Petitions may thus need other protest forms beside to help shake the more difficult political stuff. And yet, even within their limitations, petitions do have some relative power to keep firms, banks and governments thinking twice about their moves, and to keep citizens, including business, bank and government citizens, informed and active.
Promoting these more political types of appeal, rather than lingering on emotional ones or adapting to ad-like ones, would give development communication a more constructive role. Emotional types are still dominant, as seen with the popular Red Nose Day. Yet, some organisations and agencies have already made a move. They may lose in fundraising power and in popularity, but gain a lot in coherence. An opportunity cost worth considering. This would bring deeper levels of participation in development communication and campaigning, and ultimately, a paradigm of development engaged in personal and institutional change not only ‘there’ but also ‘here’.
Maria-Josep Cascant Sempere is a PhD candidate within the IDS Participation, Power and Social Change research team. She is interested in development activism with a focus on the links between popular education and economic (tax) justice campaigning in Nigeria and the UK.
Read other blogs by Maria Cascant