Send us the money or the kid gets it
Meet “Abdul”. That’s not his real name. I don’t know his real name. We never met. But I saw his photo every day for a year or so on the front page of PDT’s website and eventually took to referring to him as Abdul. And every time I saw his picture, I would hear a Record Scratch sound effect in my head.
Why? Well for one thing, this adorable little scamp had very little to do with PDT. We had no child assistance projects and had never helped him or his family. His photo was simply chosen by our web-designer for its emotive, “developy” look (to use his words). And that drove me nuts. I eventually realized why I found Abdul so jarring, which was because I saw him elsewhere. He, or an equally beatific version of a healthy, cute, brown-skinned child, was on every aid related website I came across. And once I noticed this, I couldn’t help seeing him everywhere, and ALWAYS on the landing page. I found this slightly ridiculous and more than a little disingenuous.
It’s disingenuous because, according to the OECD data, the largest aid sector is “Government and Civil Society” (15%), followed not far behind by “Transport and Storage” (8%). Primary Education is well at the back of the pack (2%). So why no photos of bureaucrats in a committee meeting or shipping containers on trucks?
It’s ridiculous because it is such a transparent ploy to look “developy”. It is emotive marketing at it’s most shameless. The cuter the kid, the more likely the individual (and govt?) donors are to send money. But isn’t this just as superficial as the ubiquitous hot girl in the beer ads or the green fields on the oil company websites? (Yes, I’m looking at you BP.) I can see the heads of these aid agencies staring at their quarterly financials and muttering, “Clearly we need cuter kids. With lollipops maybe….”
This aid eye-candy starts at the top, with government sites like these from AusAID and DFID:
CIDA tries to mix it up a little by leading with a non-smiling girl (although she appears to be the only child on that site who isn’t grinning).
USAID ups the ante slightly by going with three children at once. This is only fair I suppose, as they are one of the largest aid agencies in the world.
The NGOs take it to an entirely new level, though. Some of their sites look like they are ads for Sunny Mornings Daycare™. I feel for the child highlighted on the CARE site who looks slightly uncomfortable in her role as a marketing ploy. The mother is game though.
The girl on the World Food Program site is far more enthusiastic as a nascent aid advertising star.
World Vision, to their credit, realizes that the kid-on-the-landing-page meme is there for one reason and one reason only, to tug at the heartstrings which are connected directly to the purse strings. Their Abdul is named “Ephrem” and he has a convenient “Sponsor Now” button right below his photo in case the subtle approach wasn’t clear enough for you.
When you combine NGOs and Haiti, though, the kids are really trotted out. You would be forgiven for thinking the only people living in Haiti are under the age of five.
There are some notable, and to be honest head-scratching, exceptions that really should be highlighted. Oxfam, for example, inexplicably goes with a posse of camel riding Tuaregs, one of whom appears to be using an empty Oxfam rice bag as a saddle.
But the weirdest choice yet must be the Catholic Relief Services site which in addition to “Giving hope to a world in need” also provides sky diving lessons.
So what should they put up on their website? To be honest, there is a reason I did so poorly in Marketing at business school. I’m no Don Draper. But here are a few worth examples.
Kiva is a brilliant mechanism for funneling finance to micro-entrepreneurs. On their website? Photos of micro-entrepreneurs.
One Acre Fund helps African farmers improve their productivity. Shockingly, they’ve gone with photos of African farmers.
And Partners In Health, with a huge Haiti program, have managed to break free from the Haiti-as-a-giant-daycare theme and have photos of health clinics. It’s so crazy, it might just work.
As for PDT, Abdul is gone now. But, even as I type this, a focus group is choosing between several shots of smiling Haitian babies skydiving on to camels.
(If you have a good example of the smiling-kid website, feel free to share)