I made it through about 5 minutes of the Kony 2012 video before I got that “OK, I’m all set” feeling. The video had broken through my little bubble of the internet while I was at work and in the few hours between when my Facebook feed blew up with it and when I had 30 minutes carved out to view it, my Google Reader was already full of critiques: the money is mismanaged and from anti-gay creationist groups (Jezebel); Kony isn’t even in Uganda and other important facts are wrong (NPR); it’s all about white Americans and the Ugandans hate it (Wall Street Journal).
A few days later, Racialicious featured a great roundup of responses from Ugandan women called “We Are Not Invisible: 5 African Women Respond To The Kony 2012 Campaign.” PR-focused blogs began weighing in with posts like “The Kony Video: What Worked and What Didn’t Work” (SpinSucks) and “When Popularity Turns Bad: 5 Things to Remember When Dealing With Criticism of Your Content” (MackCollier). And then with Jason Russell’s subsequent public breakdown, the conversation shifted to the impact of his mental health on the Kony movement Invisible Children was trying to spark (not good).
While I didn’t make it all the way through the 2012 video, when a friend posted a 2006 video from Invisible Children with the wry observation “so i guess Kony 2006 was not too effective…” I was intrigued and clicked on it — and Holy. Crap. is this video all sorts of crazy.
It starts with a staged pep rally going wrong for the Invisible Children leaders. The kids are asking the hard questions like “The movie was good and sad and all but what are we supposed to do about it?” and “No offense, but what do you know about ending a war?” You know, the basic questions that are reasonable to respond to when you’re touring around with a propaganda film and trying to strike up a youth movement. And how do the Invisible Children leaders respond? They panic, huddle together call the crowd “ADD high school kids” who respond to spectacles and then — wait for it — BREAK OUT INTO SONG AND DANCE. Seriously.
I’ve shown it to friends who were convinced it had to be some sort of joke or parody. I mean it HAS to be right? Even allowing for some tongue-in-cheekiness, which I’m sure Invisible Children will claim, you’re still joking about the fact that the very people you are trying to rally are dumb enough to look past the very real (and very justified) questions they have about your motives and purpose as an organization for the flash of a poorly executed song and dance montage.
In my PR masters program we talk a lot about how companies can better engage with their audiences and how CRITICALLY important it is to listen to the audience you want to have a conversation with. I have no idea how the Invisible Children founders can be so close to a teenagers themselves and yet have such wildly insane (and shockingly offensive) ideas about how best to reach the youth population.
The NPR piece fact checking the Kony video featured Michael Wilkerson, a freelance journalist with expertise on Uganda, whose comments on awareness highlight the lesson communicators must consider before any campaign:
“I think if the goal is to raise awareness and you define awareness as more than just: I know Joseph Kony’s name, and I’ve watched this video, and I shared it on Facebook – awareness means understanding some basic facts… It’s not simply a matter of flicking a switch and saying, yep, we voted. Let’s stop Kony now.”
I don’t believe Americans are a bunch of ADD idiot teenagers with no understanding of nuance or respect for the facts. Sure, a simple compelling call to action might initially appeal to audiences like a diet of highly processed junk food does, but it doesn’t take long after consuming it to realize it stinks.