Is Kony 2012 tony, or phony?

Kony 2012—the slick and emotional video by Invisible Children that has been circling the internet through Facebook posts, reblogs, and other forms of viral marketing—has been under attack this week. Critics are claiming that is irresponsible, self-serving, and a ploy for mass merchandising.

With a campaign that asks supporters to “get the kit,” some feel that Kony 2012 has become more than a campaign for justice—it’s also become a source of revenue for its founders. Posters, bracelets, hoodies, and t-shirts are also for sale there and other places online. Questions about how much money is going to Jason Russell (its co-founder and filmmaker) vs. how much is actually going to the children have been raised. In response to this criticism Invisible Children has posted a response which includes a breakdown of expenses along with their financials.

College student Grant Oyston never expected he would get over 2.3 unique views when he wrote the blog post Visible Children: Criticizing Kony 2012. Oyston says he wrote about the issue because he felt that people were jumping on the bandwagon to follow this campaign without doing research into either the organization Invisible Children or the war in Uganda. He said that up until his blog post came up he could find very little written about these issues.

The poet Suli Breaks thinks the backlash against the Kony campaign is more a matter of cynicism. In a short response on YouTube he asserts that if the civil rights movement was going on now his generation wouldn’t buy it. Suli goes on to say people have jumped from the Kony campaign to the anti-Kony campaign—without researching either stance.

Many people, including Op-Ed NY Times columnist Nicholas Kristoff, have come out in favor of the campaign, saying that over the years he has seen that public attention can create an environment in which solutions are more likely. The top education official in Gulu, Uganda, Vincent Ochieng Ocen confirms this view as he explains the complexities of the war that has been waged for 20 years and affects not only Uganda, but other areas of Africa.

Oysten and others, including Chris Blattman, a sociologist at Yale University, would argue differently. Blattman says, “There’s also something inherently misleading, naive, maybe even dangerous, about the idea of rescuing children or saving of Africa. […] It hints uncomfortably of the White Man’s Burden. Worse, sometimes it does more than hint. The savior attitude is pervasive in advocacy, and it inevitably shapes programming. Usually misconceived programming.”

Another concern voiced by critics is that the campaign capitalizes on people’s short attention spans; people will think they have done enough simply by posting one link or wearing a bracelet.

When I discussed the campaign with my graphic design students most of them had heard about it, seen the video, and knew of the controversy that it had stirred up. There was a general consensus that they should support the cause, but not the campaign. They also agreed it was an excellent example of branding—acknowledging the slick and well executed video had powerful emotional appeal. This led to a discussion that included brand stretching, greenwashing, and social responsibility. At the very least, the campaign is a catalyst for the discussion of many of the ethical issues involved in graphic design.


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