Can sex sell poverty? Save the Children gives it a try

The video is pure Upworthy click bait, and you’ve never heard the word ‘diarrhea’ sound so sexy.

“Models are told to make poverty sound sexy; you will never believe what happens next,” might read the copy accompanying the latest effort from Save the Children. In it, a group of models are brought in to do a fashion shoot. They do their regular thing, reading from cue cards and looking sexy. Then it gets awkward.

The cards start to include statistics about global poverty. “In 2012, 6.6 million children under age 5 died. Half of them were living in fragile and conflict areas and most of their deaths could have been prevented,” reads one of the cards. The models all are miffed by the change, but are encouraged to make it sound sexier.

The conceit makes for a funny video about a serious topic. The very fact that there is nothing sexy about the effects of poverty makes both the models participating and the audience watching uncomfortable. With more than 2.6 million viewers, the awareness campaign has been a success for the Connecticut-based Save the Children.

“If only we can get people hear these issues, but it is hard to make it sexy,” said a Save the Children communications staff member a few months back.

The group were tasked with creating a campaign that paired with the annual State of the World’s Mothers report. CEO Carolyn Miles challenged the communications team to push their boundaries this year. The challenge was how to get people to stand up and take notice about poverty and its impacts around the world.

A video by Save the Children UK (each Save the Children country office operates semi-autonomously under the broader network of Save the Children International) released in March showed the story of an unnamed girl living in London who is suddenly thrust into a life of war.

Viewers are challenged to imagine what it would be like to have the UK suddenly descend into civil war, like what is happening in Syria. With more than 30 million views, the video is a resounding success for a campaign trying to get more attention on the Syrian civil war.

“We didn’t want to go down the same road as the Syria video, but we knew we had to elicit strong emotions,” said Mike Amaditz, Creative Director for Save the Children, to Humanosphere.

A frustrated comment is what helped spark the campaign. A collaboration with Big Block productions, a company run by two of the people who helped develop College Humor, an online comedy site, led to the idea to bring in a group of models who thought they were participating in a regular project.

Vague details were provided to the agents of the models and respected names took part in the production of the shoot to create a level of legitimacy. The 10 or so models who participated were completely unaware that they were going to be a part of a campaign about global poverty.

“Keeping the models in the dark was the most important piece here,” explained Amaditz. “Our two biggest concerns were how to take a humorous approach without making light of the issues and how to make the models feel like they have not been duped.”

A longer cut of roughly 3.5 minutes was trimmed down to hone in on what the campaign was trying to accomplish. The team were not out to drive donations, rather raise awareness and start conversations about poverty. Statistics repeated by the models, said as sexy as they could, were not meant to be remembered as much as the feeling of dissonance caused by attempts to make the issue sexy.

“In the early cuts we asked, “Who is really being fooled here? Is it the audience, or the models, or is it both?” said Amazitz. “We realized one of the strengths is that it is both. That combination is what will make it work.”

The final product succeeds in challenging the audience as much as it does the models. It is in part evidenced by the fact that all of the models were really excited to be a part of the campaign. One of the models, Ashley Zen, published a short video shortly after the video was released to express her excitement in taking part of the campaign.

“The greatest part was sitting behind the scenes when they revealed the truth to the models,” said Amaditz.

The resulting video has attracted more viewers than any previous Save the Children USA effort. The goal of 250,000 views in the first month was surpassed in a matter of days. Amaditz and has team have been “blown away” by the success of the campaign and the wide range of reactions from viewers. Comments have been overwhelming positive on social media channels, so far.

This is certainly the boldest thing we have done here,” said Amaditz. “You can’t rely on come of the old standards. I think we have to be bold.”

What follows is still being discussed by the team at Save the Children. The success of the campaign caught everyone a bit off guard, but they are aware that there is an opportunity to continue engagement. Amaditz understands that it is difficult to take people from the point of awareness to action. People are now finding other videos and watching them, so there is some indication that the new campaign is increasing engagement.

We are wrestling internally asking how do we keep up the engagement,” he said.

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About Author

Tom Murphy

Tom Murphy is a New Hampshire-based reporter for Humanosphere. Before joining Humanosphere, Tom founded and edited the aid blog A View From the Cave. His work has appeared in Foreign Policy, the Huffington Post, the Guardian, GlobalPost and Christian Science Monitor. He tweets at @viewfromthecave. Contact him at tmurphy[at]humanosphere.org.