The lottery of life: is it just chance?

What if you were born to different parents?

What if you were born in a different country?

What if you were born at a different time?

A new ad campaign from Save the Children, designed by Swedish advertising agency, Lowe Brindfors, and launched in Sweden asks these very questions through an interactive campaign called Lottery of Life. I took a spin through the many different aspects of this cost-effective campaign.

The billboard images juxtapose life in Sweden and other certain countries (which?). The images are very powerful, with clear themes in each set: child soldiers, natural disasters, conflict and refugees. Each juxtaposed with idyllic Swedish lifestyles of fishing, swimming, jogging and camping. Although I think it is a very effective and visually appealing billboard campaign, it simplifies and decontextualises very complex situations. Reduced to ‘developing’ v. ‘developed’. The main message, as we will see in other aspects of the campaign, is chance. That it is through chance and randomness that you are where you are and who you are.

(images credit: My Modern Met)

The video for this ad campaign takes a new approach to advocacy and fundraising. Flashing images, words and figures of poverty, hunger, conflict and disasters, the narrator of the ad understands the root of my apathy and disinterest in others. I sense that the ad is trying to empathise with me and acknowledges the constant bombardment of brands and products that I am under every day. At its base, most advertising appeals to the self and how we can better ourselves through entertainment, lifestyle, food, fashion and the Cool. Advertisements that seek to do the opposite, activate a sense of kindness, compassion, just cannot compete with products that will heighten one’s sense of cool. Brand Compassion cannot win out against Brand Self. The ad pinpoints the psychological malaise of our lack of compassion and kindness, of our procrastination in helping others. Me. You. The narrator asks you to help the one person you care about the most: you.

The next step is to adopt the beliefs of many Buddhists and Hindus and reincarnate by taking a spin on the lottery of life at their interactive website. Those who have travelled to India, Nepal, Tibet and have a passing knowledge of Buddhism will recognise this wheel for what it is: the Bhavackra, the Wheel of Life. So, I spun the wheel of fortune, and picked a consonant. The next image was of a new born with a hospital ID tag on and the name of the newborn; ‘Brendan Rigby’. So, apparently having died, I was reincarnated as a baby boy in India. I was dissapointed to discover that I had not escaped the cycle of birth, death and rebirth and attained enlightenment.

As well as being shown a very real flash image of the reincarnated baby Brendan, I was also given a list of development statistics about India around literacy, child labour, child marriage, and poverty rates. Appealing to my sense of self-interest in my own new life (?), appeals were made to ‘Help Brendan’, from where I, and others, can make a real donation to Save the Children. Thinking about the paradox of this situation and the possible affects this could have on the space-time continuum (I could hear the Doc warning me), I wanted to find out where my money would go. According to the site,

“Your donation to Save the Children goes a long way. No more than 25% of of our funding may be used for administration and fundraising. Costs at Save the Children Sweden were only 12.9% in 2009. That means 87% could be devoted to long-term and effective change.”

It is a very innovative and appealing ad campaign, but one that bothers me for a number of reasons. First, the reincarnation and appeal to donate and help me/Brendan. Although I was given some stats about the human development of India, I was not given any detailed information about Save the Children’s programs and projects in this country. They provide a very detailed and general overview of Save the Children’s work, but not for the country that I was reincarnated in.

Second, the questions raised about the notion of randomness, birth and life (although not something to be thought about too much). Before spinning the wheel, I was told that the chance of being born in Sweden was 0.08%. A figure which I find very dubious and one which I think was calculated based on Sweden’s population in proportion to the world’s. Does randomness and chance come down to relative proportions? Mathematics was never my strongest subject. My parents were not Swedish, neither were my grandparents, so I think my chances of being born in Sweden were much closer to 0%. The underlying principle of this ad campaign, unfortunately, has got me thinking of randomness and chance.

I am unsure how random or how much chance there was in my birth (in Australia) at a particular time (1983). Truely random processes do not have a memory. Our genetic code has memory. Cards, lottery, dice (unless they are loaded) do not have a memory and therefore, no past that will affect future outcomes. My family and our genetic, physical and cultural history has a complex past and therefore, will affect future outcomes such as where I am born. The chances that I am that boy fishing are not any greater than the chances that I am the child soldier. It is not in my history. So, I find it very difficult to connect to the basic premise of these ads; that where you were born and who you were born to is subject to chance and randomness. That being said, I do like the notion of alternative histories as a way of helping people empathise; to become aware of their own fortunes and feel compassion and kindness for those who do not share their history.

Last, and perhaps most significant and distressing – is this what is has come to? People’s sense of empathy, compassion and generosity are predicted on their level of self-interest. And, this is what we must appeal to? Despite the Budhhist undertones of this campaign, this is not a very Budhhist outlook. I am not sure if this is a direction that advocacy, fundraising and awareness raising should be going in, where it becomes an even more public and more apparent exercise in self gratification. It does not seek to change people’s attitude, but rather reinforce old ones. The more I think on it, the more apparent it becomes that this is a significant shift in advertising and the representation of poverty. Gone is the ‘pornography of poverty’, the images of children, the direct appeal to your sense of compassion. Apparently, you don’t care. The person you care about most is yourself.

This campaign picks up on and gives life to the idea that generosity is an exercise to make us feel better about ourselves. I do not know whether it will be successful, but will be interested to find out.

Have you spun the wheel? What do you make of the campaign and its approach?

 

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Brendan Rigby

Director & co-founder at WhyDev
Brendan is an education specialist with eight years of experience working as a teacher, researcher and programme officer. Most recently, he was an Education Officer with UNICEF in Tamale, Ghana. This year, Brendan is a PhD candidate at the University of Melbourne’s Graduate School of Education. He is also a communications consultant for Plan Asia and Director of Venture Support at StartSomeGood.

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7 thoughts on “The lottery of life: is it just chance?”

  1. Look, its an interesting juxtaposition – STC and others NEED to play on these stereotypes in order to raise funds to carry out their development work. Whilst I would love to write on here that we shouldnt distinguish between people who work in aid/development and the average Jo Blow, in reality we have to. The mainstream media in Western Countries is generally incapable of handling anything that isn't simplified and hence stereotypes will alwyas prevail.

  2. Thanks for the great comments so far. The consideration of the audience is correct and explains the simplification of the issues – the ads are not aimed at those who work/study in development. However, I agree with Mike and Weh's suggestion that these images are sterotypes and perhaps reinforce preconceptions the public may already have of poverty and conflict. If we take this thought further, then what these advertisements also offer is trust, expertise and solutions – quite implicitly. The viewer does not need to know of the complexities to donate; they need to be not only moved (by guilt or compassion), but also assured of trust. That StC is trustworthy and has the expertise and knowledge to address the underlying complexities that are not portrayed in these simple images and themes. That the money I donate, a simple gesture, will be used by those with access and expertise to address complex problems. So, like Mike suggests, at some level this may just be an exercise in brand building and brand recognition. It certainly has us talking about it.

    @Mike – here are the Mad Men who produced the campaign http://www.lowebrindfors.se/

  3. A very effective and visually appealing campaign I think. Time will tell whether it reaps benefits for savethechildren. I think it's also important not to overthink this one. Their approach is clearly to try and get people who are not ordinarily concerned with the lives of people in poorer parts of the world to start thinking about them. I've read a few criticisms around the traps which I think have been a little unfair – the majority point to the oversimplification of poverty in these countries. But it's not targeted at people who work in development and aid. It's targeted at the general public. So it might perpetuate stereotypes, but I doubt that they are worried about that – and I don’t think we really should be either. Get people to sit up and listen, then worry about complexities.

  4. I think the video is terrible, but the images and posters are wonderful. I like the simplicity of it, the visual correlation between the two options in each poster. I think it is a really clear way of juxtaposing two lives, while also reinforcing the onness of the human experience. That said, it does generate a lot of guilt on the part of the developed world viewer, and its unclear as to how we are expected to assuage that guilt. I mean, come on, we all know there are child soldiers – reminding the average person of this will not serve to make them donate, especially when there is no obvious push to do so. The campaign relies on our guilt being so great that we must find out what the lottery of life is, find the website, play a bit, and then if we are still engaged – donate. That is far too many steps. I reckon they were sold this campaign by some well-meaning PR ad agency, who actually haven't done any work for nonprofits before. This is like something you would see advertised for Nike. We're already going to buy nike shoes anyway, the ad is just there to reinforce the brand, not push us to buy a certain type of nike shoes at a certain time.

  5. I like things that look nice, and this campaign looks nice. Clean images, simple text, interactive website and possibly something to relate to for the people in the streets of Europe that haven't studied or worked in Development? I was born in Pakistan and learned that there'd be a 50% chance I'd be illiterate, and that there's internal conflict. Basic stuff, right? But StC aren't using billboards to try and teach of the finer complexities of development, they're trying to get donations, and maybe basic stats is what is need. I've heard the term 'lottery of life' banded about – the advertising boffins clearly have too, and have ran with it.

What are you thinking?