Merchants of misery

Advertisements from Third World agencies are designed to raise funds for agency projects; present the agency’s image to the general public; and provide information on development issues. Such aims can conflict. Explanations of the causes of poverty are unlikely to be big fundraisers.

For convenience, let us simply call them the advertisers. They make up a small clan of people, yet they have significant influence on how the reality of the Third World is presented to the general public in the Western world. They are literally the ‘breadwinners’ of several thousand voluntary aid agencies in Europe and North America, because it is their job to design and execute these agencies’ publicity and fundraising campaigns. Some of them are on the staff of professional advertising agencies, while others are associated directly with the voluntary agencies themselves as public relations-people and fundraisers.

The advertisers have gone about their business for several decades with considerable zeal and efficiency.

They virtually always played safe by zeroing in on the starving child. As a result, we have seen these emaciated children with bloated bellies and listless eyes again and again – on our TV screens, on the front page of our newspapers, on billboards and posters and in countless other places.

The starving child image is seen as unethical, because it comes dangerously close to being pornographic... it exhibits the human body and soul in all its nakedness, without any respect for the person involved

The starving child image – which includes variations on the theme such as despairing fathers, grieving mothers and sad-looking teenagers – is likely to remain a permanent feature in fundraising campaigns for a long time to come. But it is no secret that a quiet rebellion has been brewing within the ranks of the advertisers themselves.

There is no denying that the starving child image has been helpful in opening a lot of people’s eyes to the harsh realities of the world in which we live. A substantial number of the advertisers will insist nothing can beat the starving child when it comes to ‘profitability’ and that this approach is a necessity to ensure the cash will keep rolling in and keep the aid agencies in operation. But a growing minority have serious doubts about this approach, which they see as both unethical and counter-productive in the long run.

The starving child image is seen as unethical, firstly because it comes dangerously close to being pornographic. In my definition, pornography is the exhibition of the human body and soul in all its nakedness, without any respect and piety for the person involved. The public display of an African child with a bloated kwashikorkor-ridden stomach in advertisements is pornographic, because it exposes something in human life that is as delicate and deeply personal as sexuality, that is, suffering. It puts people’s bodies, their misery, their grief and their fear on display with all the details and all the indiscretion that a telescopic lens will allow.

It is very telling that this type of social pornography is so prevalent in fundraising campaigns for the benefit of other races in far-away places but virtually non-existent when it comes to domestic concerns. I can recall few examples of pornographic advertisements and posters designed to raise money for disadvantaged people in Western countries.

Perhaps the reason for this remarkable difference was given inadvertently in a recent advertisement by the British child welfare agency Dr Barnardo’s. It told the story of a three-year-old British girl and her sad fate – not very different from stories about Third World children in need. But the advertisement carried no photo – just a black-and-white silhouette of a small girl with the caption: ‘Our children’s identities are never revealed so as to spare publicity.’ ‘Why,’ one might justifiably ask, does this concern over distressing publicity not extend to people in the Third World?

The starving child image is also unethical because it helps to keep the myth alive that material wealth is the very foundation of a decent quality of life. A recurring theme in this type of advertising is that ‘we are so fortunate… so shouldn’t we spare some cash for those poor people who are so much less fortunate?’ All the pain and agony in our own midst – broken homes, pollution, crime, drug abuse, loneliness – are conveniently swept under the carpet. And so are all the strengths and riches of the ‘unfortunate ones’ – their ingenuity, their cultural identity, their close family ties, their generosity, their hospitality. The result is inevitable – once again the superiority of Western civilization and Western values has been brought home.

The image-making function of such advertisers is not unlike that of tourist brochures. In both cases a distorted view of reality is presented, because the primary objective is not to tell the truth but to sell a product. True, there are spotless beaches and breath-taking ski resorts in India and the service at hotels in Jamaica and Bali is undoubtedly second to none. True, the malnourished children in the Somalia refugee camps do have bloated bellies and people on the verge of starvation have in fact resorted to eating food from the nests of rats.

Good intentions aren't good enough if they are pursued with little or no understanding of what such images do to the mentality, the attitudes, the political emotions and behaviour of their audience

What is objectionable is not that reality is shown for what it is but that a particular group of people – the advertisers – with large sums of money at their disposal are able to put forward a particular and very one-sided view of reality to large numbers of people who have no chance to double-check its veracity. Yes, the money they raise is used to help people in need. But good intentions simply aren’t enough if they are pursued with little or no regard for the political side effects, with little or no understanding of what such images do to the mentality, the attitudes, the political emotions and behaviour of their audience.

Those advertisers who are beginning to rebel against the starving child image have tried a variety of alternatives. Some have focused on images and slogans showing Third World people as industrious and ingenious people who act intelligently within the limits of their resources. People in the high-income countries are not asked to play God or save humankind, but simply to ‘lend a hand’. The same approach is apparent in plain and unsentimental language, such as Christian Aid in Britain did recently: ‘They’re not beggars. They need drills to find water, seeds, ploughs and bullocks to sow; teachers and doctors to keep them alive; technological training to support themselves.’ Unpretentious. Down-to-earth. Others have turned the tables, focusing on the various motivations that lead people to acts of solidarity. As part of its Lenten campaign 1978 Danchurchaid in Denmark issued a series of four posters showing photos of Danish individuals and quoting their particular reason for getting involved. An elderly couple did so ‘…because we have gone through hard times ourselves’. A farmer did it ‘…because I know what it means to have a good harvest’. A housewife ‘…because my own children are well and secure’ and a class of teenage schoolchildren ‘…because everybody has the right to a decent start in life’.

Still others have opted for the graphic approach, using drawings – often symbolic ones – to bring out a principle rather than a particular person. The Swedish agency Lutherhjälpen chose as its main logo for the 1977 Lenten campaign a drawing of three children of different races, sitting with spoons in their hands around a big pot of rice in the shape of the globe. The caption reads: ‘The resources of the earth are sufficient if only we share them with one another.’ The agency War on Want in Britain circulated as far back as 1975 a cartoon-like poster attacking 12 of the most widespread prejudices and misconceptions in Britain itself.

These examples are hardy revolutionary and many readers of the New Internationalist are likely to feel that such innovations are only marginally better than the starving child image. I share the same impatience. And yet these attempts to utilize a dignified and respectful type of advertising rather than a degrading one do present a positive beginning. Instead of cursing the world for not being perfect, I prefer to welcome the fact that a number of advertisers have had the courage to get away from being simple merchants of misery in favour of being genuine salesmen of solidarity.

One way to ensure that this process continues and gathers momentum would be, I suggest, to persuade the voluntary aid agencies as a group to set certain professional standards of performance in the advertising field and to make sure that such standards are being abided by. The medical profession, the legal profession and other groups in society have established ‘watch dog committees’ with substantial Third World participation to monitor the ethical standards within their own ranks. Why not do the same among advertisers? The purpose of such an entity should not be to institute rigid controls or guidelines, but primarily to impose a degree of self-discipline and to keep the internal debate on these issues alive.

Jorgen Lissner is project director of Denmark’s leading voluntary aid agency, Danchurchaid, and author of The Politics of Altruism, published by World Council of Churches.