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Send us the money or the kid gets it

PDT's former spokesmodel Abdul

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:

AusAID: Look at the donor mommy

DFID: Smiling for dollars

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).

CIDA: Don't make me smile

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.

USAID: More money = more kids

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.

Care: Really? I have to smile for the MDGs?

The girl on the World Food Program site is far more enthusiastic as a nascent aid advertising star.

WFP: I can do jazz-hands too if you want

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.

World Vision: Send us the money or the kid gets it

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.

Care: No adults here

CRS: Just us kids

Mercy Corps: Seriously, everyone in Haiti is a toddler I swear

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.

Oxfam: Southern Libya Polo Club poses for photo after raiding aid convoy.

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.

CRS: Every donation comes with a tandem jump

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.

One Acre Fund

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.

Partners in Health

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)

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  6. Meredith says:

    Perhaps the smiling toddler marketing phenomenon is a backlash against the TV commercials in the 1980’s and 90’s that attempted to guilt viewers into giving. Of course they were well intended; nobody doubts that. But we all remember that uneasy feeling when Sally Struthers came on the tube. Cue the kids with the flies.

    The tactic was: We’re going to remind you about the bad stuff in this world. We’re going to make you feel bad. Bad and guilty. Here’s some images of crying kids. Do you feel bad yet? Guilty? Wish there was something you could do to help? (and make yourself feel better?) Good news! For just the price of a cup of coffee…you remember the pitch.

    People did feel bad. Bad enough to change the channel. The image of the kids with the flies crept into our media vocabulary and became a symbol of something that we collectively could not put our finger on. We stopped feeling empathy because we felt manipulated. And that made us feel inhuman. And angry. Enter donor fatigue.

    So the pendulum swung. The happy healthy kid became the anecdote. The new thinking was that positive images inspire us, make us feel good, and want to give. Definitely the right direction. But soon it just looked like organizations were just going out of their way to prove that they were not playing the guilt based plea for help game. When images just evoke a positive feeling in general without directly connecting that feeling with something tangible within the organization, we veer off track because we feel manipulated again.

    So yes, I agree- the examples of Kiva, One Acre Fund, and Partners in Health do work, because they cut out the smoke and mirrors and actually show us the good work that the organizations are doing. This piques our interest, and makes us want to click and find more information.

    So what images should we put on our websites? How can PDT, specifically, impart through images that it is efficient, smart, innovative, and true to its mission; while also treating us to an emotional connection? Give us more of this! Here’s why I think these photojournalistic images are spot on. People relate to story and experience. These are images of people doing every day work. They are not the disconnected smiling children that conjure up an emotion that sort of hovers above the topic. These photos create a direct emotional connection to the work of PDT-A, and they use artistic sensibilities like composition, lighting, and color to achieve it.

  7. Meredith says:

    In my previous reply, one of the links didn’t read.
    is the example I wanted to point to, Jame’s Rexroad’s compelling images.

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