Ads to fight hunger in Africa, without the hungry

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa — The images almost shimmer with beauty: a lush green landscape in South Sudan, a Kenyan market abundant with ripe vegetables, a luminous lake sunset in Mali, a misty forest in Liberia.

The pictures could grace a travel brochure. But the advertising campaign, launched in Britain in late December, is aimed at raising funds for an Oxfam anti-hunger drive titled “Food for All.”

“Let’s make Africa famous for its epic landscapes, not hunger,” says the ad’s slogan, found on billboards and in print and digital formats.


The counter-intuitive campaign, says Oxfam, which has an annual budget of $640 million, comes after a survey found the British public has grown to view negative images of Africa as “depressing, manipulative and hopeless,” making people less inclined to donate.

“I think we all have to have a more balanced point of view,” Barbara Stocking, chief executive of the British arm of the international aid agency, said in an interview.

Stocking said the world had moved on from the era of the smash hit single “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” by Bob Geldof and other musicians, released in 1984 to raise money to combat hunger in Ethiopia and re-released in 2004 to raise funds for the Sudanese region of Darfur. The song featured lyrics describing Africa as a place “where nothing ever grows, no rain nor rivers flow.”

“The whole image of ‘Africa is a basket case’ is very bad for development,” Stocking said, and a new “more balanced” approach is needed to attract donations from those who feel powerless to make a difference amid endless negative portraits of the continent.

But the idea of eschewing photographs of those an agency hopes to help is drawing its own criticism. Some argue that Oxfam’s new message is fuzzy and confused, failing to stir that powerful trigger to compassion: emotion. If the high-minded campaign fails to persuade people to actually give, then it’s a waste of donor funds, they say.

“Not one donor in a hundred has ever spent a second regretting Africa’s PR woes,” said Jeff Brooks, Seattle-based author of the blog “Future Fundraising Now.” “People give in order to accomplish specific action that’s in their reach. They can imagine feeding a hungry person.

“My guess: It’ll get press attention, but little else,” he said in an emailed response to The Times.

Nancy Schwartz, a consultant for nonprofit groups, said it was important to avoid such negative images as starving children because they can make potential donors feel powerless. At the same time, she said, the Oxfam campaign was unlikely to hold people’s attention because it was “muddled and irrelevant and the call to action is buried.”

A better approach would be to focus on a positive story showing how an individual had been helped, she said.

“Our brains are actually hard-wired to relate to other people’s experiences. When we see or visualize someone doing something, our neurons fire as if we were that person; we’re standing in their shoes,” she said, referring to the Oxfam campaign in an email to The Times.

Others see fundraising efforts that eschew emotional calls to save starving children as a refreshing change.

“Disaster porn has been for many years the dominant style of humanitarian appeals for popular responses to famine,” Elliot Ross writes in the blog “Africa Is a Country.”

In recent years, many charities have embraced more nuanced and positive portraits of people in need, eliminating images of skeletal victims in tattered rags, in favor of glossy pictures of mothers and children with large, solemn eyes. Some have gone further, embracing abstract images.

A year ago, Action Against Hunger undertook a campaign using a string of abstract, faceless paper dolls — one much skinnier than the others — to depict the idea of hunger. A second ad featured a pizza box with a coin-sized pizza, inviting readers to imagine surviving on much less food.

The hunger agency’s external relations director said the campaign was aimed at motivating potential new donors.

“The imagery that has long been associated with global hunger tends to be mostly of emaciated children and families in developing countries,” said Matt Aubry. “While this can be motivating to those already committed to the cause, it can deter those who are new to the issue.”

Brooks and Schwartz both labeled the Action Against Hunger ads a failure. “If you want people to donate to help people, you’re going to have to show images of people,” said Brooks. “Not paper dolls; not miniature pizzas. Donors don’t have time to play your mind games. Just show them what needs to be done.”

Schwartz said nonprofit organizations launching fundraising drives were often looking for something unusual and different.

“I think many organizations turn to commercial advertising agencies who know nothing about charities and fundraising, and a lot about consumer marketing,” she said.

Stocking of Oxfam said the agency’s $1.2-million ad campaign was not just about fundraising but was part of a broad campaign to show that the international community could solve world hunger.

“It challenges people to think about Africa in a different way,” she said.

Yet it remains important, she says, to engage donors’ emotions.

“We are trying to think about how do you get emotional engagement rather than just pulling at heart strings and creating guilt. There are other emotions you can use.”