Gisele Bundchen in the America Express (RED) campaign to help eliminate aids in Africa. Photo courtesy of http://www.joinred.com/Learn/Partners/AmericanExpress.aspx

Gisele Bundchen in the America Express (RED) campaign to help eliminate aids in Africa. Photo courtesy of http://www.joinred.com/Learn/Partners/AmericanExpress.aspx

In an increasingly globalised and interconnected world, the partnership between humanitarian agencies, like Red Cross and Save the Children, and the media is of paramount importance. These NGOs use communication strategies and marketing to raise awareness of their cause and ultimately to raise funds. Cottle and Nolan (2007) argue that this has resulted in many NGO’s seeking to ‘brand’ themselves and use celebrities and personalised media packages to gain media attention and further their cause. Their article titled ‘Global Humanitarianism and the Changing Aid-Media Field’ looks at the pros and cons of this new strand and strategy of global aid media. They conclude that these developments (branding and increased reliance on global media) are threatening the ethics of global humanitarianism.

It is now worth analysing this ethical argument and posing the question: are aid organisations now ‘selling’ suffering to satisfy the news agenda of the media at the expense of the respect and dignity of the affected people? Is this a typical example of the ends justify the means or just ‘the pornography of suffering?

Many NGOs are now spending huge proportions of their budgets on expensive media campaigns and courting celebrities instead of focusing on the real causes and effects of poverty. The media has a ridiculous penchant for the ‘celeb’ and aid agencies are playing up to this:

‘Until you’ve got a celebrity or a photo worthy person up there to sell it…then its going to be a steep hill.’ (Public affairs officer, Save the Children 2007).

The work of Brazilian supermodel Gisele Bundchen – the so called lady of charity – is a perfect example of this new media logic at work. Her image has been used to lend support to a number of humanitarian causes. In a campaign for HIV/AID’s sufferers in Africa, her face appeared on American Express Red card, an initiative by U2 front man Bon and Bobby Shriver, in which some percentage of money earned from the credit card’s transaction went to support African’s victims of HIV/AIDS. She has also appeared naked in a recent ad campaign for a Brazilian eco-charity. She is well known for her support of charities that protect the Amazon rainforest , such as Nascentes do Brasil, ISA, Y Ikatu Xingu, and De Olho nos Mananciais. She posed clad only in leaves on the cover of US magazine American Photo to promote her Forests of the Future project for the reforestation of the Brazilian Atlantic Forest. The initiative, which was set up with SOS Mata Atlantica in 2004, has planted over 1 million new trees in Bundchen’s name to start reforestation of the Brazilian rainforests. Bundchen has also donated $150,000 to Brazil’s Zero Hunger program.

The Red Cross in Latin America has also recently joined up with Sony Erikkson to promote their cause and aid communication. Their moto is now ‘when there is a human need to communicate Erikkson is here.’

Of course I am not criticising the charitable work done by these celebrities and companies and I just highlighting the often hidden problems or by-products that they create. Aid organisations do need the media promote their cause but in my opinion this obsession with the celebrity is taking too many resources away from actually physically helping people, distorting the goals of many agencies and leading to an over-reliance on media practices. A quick analysis of the new rhetoric emphasises the shifting agendas in aid media. The word ‘brand’ highlights the increased use of corporate promotion and marketing principles and the integration of NGOs into the corporate world. Jobs Selasie, head of charity African Aid Action has gone as far as saying that campaigns led by Bono and Bob Geldof have actually made problems worse in Africa by increasing corruption and dependency.

Beck (2005) argues that humanitarian agencies are actually playing a leading role in defining a new global social landscape. They are the leading players in connecting the poorest people in the third world with those in the developed world. How is this done? Through sophisticated television campaigns and the dissemination of images and ideals through new media. In this way the media act as a bridge between the first world and the third world. Cottle and Nolan contend that a new ‘media logic’ has emerged with inherent contradictions within it; NGOs need the media to bring public attention and support to global humanitarian issues but in order to attract this support they use communication strategies which detract from their original purpose. Funding is being focused in the wrong places.

In my opinion this new media logic is counter-productive. Media organisations seek to provide video images of the latest unfolding humanitarian disaster and deliver it to the global media to satisfy their appetite. ‘Everyone was dying for footage’ – those were the mis-chosen words of a communications manager of an aid agency referring to the media’s clamourings for footage and not the vitcims of the last humnaitarian disasters. This powerful highlights the now distorted focus of these agencies.

Images are becoming more sensational and more graphic. They flood our television screens. We’re constantly being told by Bono or Gisele Bunchen or some diamond earring wearing footballer, that we can end this suffering with just two pounds a month. This commercialisation of suffering has in some ways had an ironic side effect; many people simply change the channel. They’ve seen it all before and have become de-sensitised to death and suffering Branding has depoliticised development.

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