Oxfam GB began a new ad campaign for Africa this month that has immediately come under scrutiny. At the same, time Oxfam America is launching a new campaign that is also centred largely on Africa, but not entirely. Only a few days younger than its British counterpart, the American campaign has yet to draw the ire of anyone, while the British has required justification from Oxfam GB’s CEO, Dame Stocking.
Sharpening the same old rusty tools
Times have changed, and the audience along with it. They are a more savvy consumer of advertising, but also more globally aware. To compare an ad from today, and the message it’s attempting to purport, is to deny not only the use and effects of previous campaigns, but also the changes that have occurred within society at large.
The situation in Africa or Central America, Asia and elsewhere for that matter, is different from that of 20, 30, 40 years ago. The means of communication have changed, but then so have the organisations (especially the communications staff). Advertising and advocacy campaigns have grown rusty amid the changing global environment. Advertising is a tool that needs to be sharpened constantly – particularly as it’s a tool that’s been inherited. If your grandfather gave you an old spade you’d simply hone the edge or maybe replace the handle rather than tossing it aside.
Newly honed: there’s a definite edge
Both the British and American Oxfam campaigns for Africa are a fresh take on an old issue. Vibrant colours, stunning photographs and a funky font make for eye-catching yet clean material. The differences though are immediately apparent. The British have gone in for landscapes, showcasing the verdant and varied biosphere, while the Americans have gone for the individuals, encapsulating the personal side to Africa.
Each is a distinctly different approach. Yet through both of them you can see the unifying essence that is Oxfam and their mission. How each campaign is being wielded does more than simply identify the nascent development of the campaigns’ consumers, who want more than the blatant messages of conflict and famines of the 80s and 90s. It shows a great understanding on the part of all stakeholders that advertising is a tool that all should have a share in.
A committee need not be convened to approve every message from every stakeholders’ standpoint – the gods know there are already too many committees involved in aid and development. The mere fact that organisations like Oxfam are taking into account the wider cultural effects shows they’ve graduated from swinging a machete to pulling out the pruning shears. It doesn’t mean they’re as deft as they could be, but you cannot grow and nurture a bonsai overnight even with tiny tools.
Calling a spade… something with a handle
Oxfam GB and Oxfam America target different audiences with their respective campaigns. There are similarities between the target audiences, but there are enough differences that varied campaigns are a prerequisite. Each campaign is also focused on different issues; for GB it’s about reimagining Africa, for the US it’s about not cutting foreign aid for the sake of the national budget. Both campaigns want to see aid to continue to flow to Africa (particularly through Oxfam GB; Oxfam America doesn’t take USAID funding), though the issues each organisation faces differ drastically.
Oxfam GB is focused on an issue that they personally have been a part of and responsible for. There’s no denial. And, there’s no apology – this isn’t a debate on poverty porn, but recognition that it has been used in the past – good or bad, Oxfam and others must move on. Consumers are equally complicit in the previous ad campaigns, as they needed such crass images to get involved. Oxfam GB calls the consumer on this fact with one word ‘Let’s’. It is a social contract.
The acknowledgement of all parties’ share in a stereotyped perception of Africa as a continent of starvation is a step towards dialogue and the change of that image. However, the changing of an image or even a person’s view is not done through one medium alone, which is why Oxfam GB’s campaign needs to be seen in the wider context, not just next to that of Oxfam America’s.
The message from Oxfam America’s campaign is one that is intrinsically tied to the political culture of the US. Oxfam America is discussing American politics and how they shape the world, but it’s doing so through a prism that many Americans would understand. Foreign aid, slightly more than 1% of the US budget, is being shown not as a hand-out but a means to support self-starters – those very same people which the US prides itself upon for making it what it is today – and not something that should be cut.
Oxfam America is asking the American taxpayer and their elected representatives to allow Oxfam and its partners to do its job. In highlighting the similarities between individuals in Africa and the US, Oxfam America is attempting to engage people on a level they can understand, on the same issues they’re feeling at home. Because the issue of foreign aid is a personal one for Oxfam America, the organisation appear to have made its campaign personal for everyone.
The immediacy of Oxfam America’s goal can’t be underscored enough. Given that the US government only managed to put off issues relating to the ‘fiscal cliff’ by a further two months, and that the Congress and Senate will be meeting once again to decide the future of the American national budget, the timing of the new campaign is apt. But, it isn’t so much a campaign for Africa or even Oxfam as it is an attempt at lobbying. Just look at where some of the ads are placed: within Reagan National Airport and the metro system in Washington DC.
However, from a design perspective, the font is a sore point. The font, as bright and cheerful with that African edge as it tries to be, comes across a little callous. Oxfam should keep in mind the thoughts of Jonathan Barnbrook, “A good typeface creates an emotional response in relation to the message it is conveying. You’re trying to get that tone of voice right – you can shout or whisper. And you want to sum up the spirit of the age, because they do date quite quickly”. The playfulness of it undermines the impassioned and serious plea that both organisations are broadcasting and could in the end be detrimental to their overall message.
It is about generating discussions, rather than impressions
Each of these campaigns has been crafted by professionals who are well aware of the limits of the mediums they are working in and what they hope to achieve. They are also keenly aware of how messages, images and memes are itinerant between mediums. Social media, whether explicitly expressed or not, is a large part of spreading the messages of both organisations and is being utilised to do so very effectively.
Both Oxfam GB and Oxfam America have, in effect, not merely provided the campaigns’ consumers with the very tools they use – they’ve invited the audience into the tool shed. Showing how these tools are shaped to the task spurs the discussion of each campaign. Both organisations are involving you in the discussion by getting you to hold the discussion.
They’re not asking you to have it, or even demanding that such discussions take place. The enticement comes from the ideas they present so that the audience stops and looks at what each organisation is doing and how. Dame Stocking’s comment of, “We want to make sure people have a really better balanced picture of what’s happening in Africa. Of course we have to show what the reality is in the situations in those countries. But we also need to show the other places where things are actually changing, where things are different”, and concise feedback from Tolu Ogunlesi is nothing more than presenting a different perspective of Africa and aid, but with a caveat – the audience is forced to determine what that picture is.
Oxfam GB is not purporting to be the final or even an authoritarian voice on aid and Africa. The offer to make a cultural change within the UK with the audience by saying ‘Let’s’ allows for the differing views and constructive suggestions of others. It opens the tool shed to everyone to discuss not just the work to be done but how. Much of what is done today in terms of advertising, particular on complex issues, is about generating discussions rather than impressions.
Oxfam America’s discussion includes the tool shed and those in it, but never to the same degree. Their concern is being able to keep the shed and the tools in it. It seeks a far more tangible effect, but one that can only be determined in the future – not by impressions, Likes or click-throughs. The success of Oxfam America’s campaign rests in the hands of the American taxpayer and their elected representative.
Whatever you’re feeling about these ads isn’t wrong or right. They probably elicited a response, which they’re supposed to. They’re generating a discussion, but for them to be really successful it needs to be elsewhere. Take your comments and your feelings to your personal blogs, to Facebook, Twitter and any other medium that connects to those who aren’t in the aid and development community.
Talk to those who are not inside the ‘Aid Beltway’. Share with them and see what they have to say.