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Why poverty porn is like shoulder pads and leg warmers

Why poverty porn is like shoulder pads and leg warmers

You think maybe it will finally be over only to find it’s still there, like a bad head cold you can’t shake. 

No, I’m not talking about the Big Bang Theory or Two and a Half Men. I’m talking about something even worse: poverty porn. 

Rachel Kurzyp wrote about Save the Children’s recent foray back into the world of poverty porn, and the reasons poverty porn is bad have been articulated many times, so I don’t want to solely focus on that again. (I do, however, want to point out this article, which argues reality TV may be the antidote to poverty porn.) 

Rather, I want to ask the question of how we got here in the first place. Where did NGO marketing start? Where is it going? What have we realised along the way? 

Conquest, war, famine and death

While people often point to the Ethiopian famine in the 1980s as the beginning of humanitarian aid, many NGOs have their roots in the wars of the 1930s and 1940s. Plan International was established in response to the Spanish Civil War, and Oxfam was founded in 1942 to relieve famine in Greece caused by the Nazi occupation and Allied naval blockades.

Unfortunately, this was well before the advent of the Internet, and easy access to marketing campaigns via Google Images, though this one was on Oxfam’s website, dated 1943. 

oxfam_1943_image
Oxfam image from 1943.

Which brings us back to 1984 and the Ethiopian famine, when the disaster was well-televised and the charity appeals very public. 

The images used at the time were shocking and disturbing, precisely because their intent was to shock and disturb. They were intended to move people to action, and quickly, and that was as far as the thought process went. 

1984 Oxfam appeal.
1984 Oxfam appeal.

Somewhere along the way, however, we started to realise some of the issues with using these kinds of images, such as how they misrepresent poverty and the poor, fail to respect people’s dignity and can further stigmatise them.

The last issue, the one about stigma, is particularly serious, and can undermine the very work charities are trying to do in making people’s lives better.

Just one example: By sticking photos of a person on materials imploring “Donate now to stop HIV/AIDS,” we’re suggesting that person has HIV/AIDS (regardless of whether or not it’s someone with HIV/AIDS or a stock photo of someone of whose health the person choosing the photo knows nothing about) and likely making it more difficult for them to have relationships or find employment. 

There are similar issues of stigma that come up when showing people as poor, the victims of trafficking, etc.

These issues started to be acknowledged by NGOs. Let’s be consistent and stick with Oxfam. Here’s how it reflects on one of its collection tins from the 1960s: with a firm “don’t do this.” 

Screen Shot 2014-05-14 at 10.41.54 PM

Happy smiling faces

Because of the way we’re wired, we’re drawn to images of people and personal stories, to the degree that organisations like Kiva and the entire child sponsorship model allow us to give to and connect with individuals.

So most NGO marketing still features individuals, it’s just that now they are happy. Many NGOs now choose to speak about people’s strengths and potential, rather than their weaknesses or problems.

Compared with the decades of marketing that came before, this is a dramatic shift.

From a 2013 Oxfam campaign.
From a 2013 Oxfam campaign.
Screen Shot 2014-05-14 at 10.43.16 PM
A page out of Oxfam UK’s brand guidelines.

Yet in some cases, even if individuals are portrayed with dignity and as actors with agency in their own lives, there are still issues. 

A good example of this is children, who as minors require more protection than adults, and do not have the same ability to consent to their representation as do adults. 

In these cases, the next frontier may be to show the teachers, the social workers, the engineers, the doctors, and all the other various people that we know as aid workers, doing their work. Note again the emphasis on the individual. 

From the Friends International website. Friends works with at-risk children and young people.
From the Friends International website. Friends works with at-risk children and young people.

If done well, this can not only protect beneficiaries but also break down some of the stereotypes concerning aid and development. Showing Laotian mechanics working in Laos shows development is not us and them, “us” as the foreigners coming in to save “them.” 

Desperate measures

This little history lesson and musings on where aid marketing has been and where it’s going helps to contextualise Save the Children’s recent ads and show why many other charities have stopped using such exploitative images. 

Last year, a group of media professionals and NGO and UN agency workers met in New York City to discuss poverty porn. The Humanosphere quoted a participant as saying, “The use of poverty porn is a desperate attempt by charities to stay relevant.”

A desperate and, I would add, misguided attempt.

Poverty porn doesn’t make NGOs relevant. Like shoulder pads and leg warmers, it’s a relic of the 80s and is best left there.

Featured image is an Oxfam billboard. Photo from First Person Blog.

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Allison Smith

Allison is a freelance writer and communications professional. She is a contributor to Beacon, and her work has been published in Matador, Killing the Buddha, and In/Words Magazine & Press. She currently lives in Cambodia. For more Allison, visit her website at allisonjanesmith.com and follow her on Twitter at @asmithb.

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3 thoughts on “Why poverty porn is like shoulder pads and leg warmers

  1. […] is clear then that the use of poverty porn was not the result of bad judgment but a specific marketing tactic. This tactic confuses me because I find it hard to accept that an organisation I worked for and was […]

  2. The historical memory drawn on here is incredibly truncated. Did poverty porn really only begin in the 1930s and 1940s? Many older NGOs began life as missionary outfits, and the history of colonialism is replete with portrayals of colonized peoples as agency-less, child-like masses clamoring for “our” enlightened intervention. These kinds of images continue to pop up because our relationship with the Global South has not fundamentally changed in many respects; what is the “Responsibility to Protect”, for instance, but a kind of “White Man’s Burden” version 2.0? Poverty porn is destructive because it decontextualizes the suffering and absolves us of any implication in the global structures of exploitation and dispossession that perpetuate it.

    1. You’re right, Nikolas, it’s very truncated. As the focus on the post is NGO marketing, I wanted to be able to show how one NGO’s marketing materials have changed over time, hence the focus on Oxfam. As Oxfam was started in the 1940s, it seemed as good a point as any to start looking at the imagery, but your point is taken – absolutely it goes back further to the entire period of colonialism.

      You’ve hit the nail on the head with why poverty porn is destructive. I think more broadly that charity, if not accompanied by activism to change exploitative systems and structures, can be the same. This is an excellent essay that touches on some of these themes: http://www.how-matters.org/2014/03/19/if-the-revolution-will-not-be-funded-what-can-we-do/

      I think your point about R2P being an extension of the White Man’s Burden would make a good WhyDev post – email me at allison[at]whydev.org if you’re interested in fleshing that thought out!

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