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Maverick Aid in the Philippines: An inspiring story or a waste of valuable money?

Filmmaker Casey Neistat had the opportunity to use $25,000 to fund the trip of a lifetime. He decided to use the money from a major movie production company to help out people in the Philippines affected by Typhoon Haiyan.

And he made a video about it.

Published on Monday, Neistat’s video caught the attention of the likes of FastCompany, Huffington Post and the Washington Post. He tells the story of a solicitation from 20th Century Fox, makers of the new film, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, to make a video as a part of a promotional campaign for the film. He responded to the idea of making a video of him living his dream with the proposal to take the fully $25,000 and help people in the Philippines.

“Here’s my concept: Give me the budget. I’ll go to the Philippines and spend every penny helping people in need.”

The studio accepted. The video then follows Neistat as he shows up in Manila. He connects with people on the ground after asking to for someone who ‘knows how to make shit happen.’ The connection is made and they head to the town of Cebu. There, Neistat buys some food and medicines that are then loaded up in a bus.

“This is what my The Secret Life of Walter Mitty’s promotional budget looks like,” says a piece of paper he holds up before revealing the haul.

Neistat

The goods are then carried into the town to be distributed to people after a working all night to prepare the deliveries. Piano music plays in the background to show the devastation as people try to get on with their lives. The need is shown by the flashing of graffiti asking for help and food.

“For a while, the video seems a little self-aggrandizing. There is a faint whiff of “See what a hero I am?” as Neistat, on his food-bus to Tacloban, leans out the door and signals ambulances to pass while a hip soundtrack plays on,” describes Joe Berkowitz of Fast Company who warms up to the video.

Neistat and team begin distributing food and he admits that they may not have bought enough. People are seen carrying bags away, with smiles, he distributes some more, the music swells and there is a puppy.

With more than 500,000 views in only a matter of a few days, the video has garnered both praise and criticism. With so little information provided, it is hard to know who served as partners and how the money was exactly spent. It ends by saying over 10,000 meals were provided, tools were distributed in 35 villages and medicines were given to local organizations.

Whether or not these were actual needs or the list was determined by Neistat’s contact is unclear. What is known is that the World Food Programme can feed a child through its school program for $0.25. A direct donation to the WFP could have funded roughly 100,000 meals, an impact that would have been doubled thanks to a matching gift from the Unilever Foundation.

Getting an actual comparison is difficult, but it stands to reason that a donation could have funded many more meals than the 10,000 distributed. The United States pledged an additional $24.6 million in support of the recovery effort in the Philippines. It is a small way to support the $8.17 billion that the Philippines estimates it needs to recover from the typhoon.

Just giving away the money might not have gotten much attention, nor would it have necessarily supported by 20th Century Fox. The conceit is a rejection of a promotional offering, it is still very much a promotional video.

This is not the first time Neistat has taken a concept and gone in a different direction than was intended. Commissioned to make a third commercial for Nike’s Fuelband, Neistat went rouge and used the production to film his travels around the world for ten days.  The video brought in 10 million views for Neistat and Nike.

“[A]cting like this video is anything besides a brilliant ad is both dishonest and terribly naive. It’s also kind of risky. Neistat may just be peddling movies, and Dove may just be hyping soap — but if you don’t realize someone’s selling you something, you’ll buy anything, right?” argues Caitlin Dewy in the Washington Post Style blog.

Supporters of the video will admire Neistat for taking money from a studio and using it for good. It is an admirable deed, but one that deserves as much scrutiny as any aid project.

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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.