What are the pros and cons of positive, negative and global (i.e. post North-South) campaigns?

October 1, 2014

     By Duncan Green     

Oxfam’s launching a big global campaign on inequality in October and as always, there are some fascinating internal meta-discussions about the pros inequality braziland cons of different kinds of campaigns.

A few years ago, we launched ‘Grow’, an attempt to run a campaign based on positive framing (a positive vision for the future of food, life and planet, with a focus on sharing). Although a positive frame appeals to a much wider public than just activists, it’s hard to turn it into a hard hitting campaign. We ended up running lot of more traditional ‘problem, solution, villain’ campaigns (on land grabs, corporate malpractice etc) inside the Grow umbrella.

That may be right – to get real change, you need to shift the overall narrative, so that, for example, policy makers and publics realize that planetary boundaries are a genuine concern. But you also need to go beyond generalities and offer tangible actions both for individuals (‘what can I do to make a difference’) and for policy makers, not least because there’s nothing like a quick win to reinforce morale and a sense of the possibility of change.

The inequality campaign’s innovative characteristic is that, more than any previous Oxfam campaign, it completely supersedes the traditional North-South split – inequality is just as big an issue in the UK or US as it is in Brazil or Kenya.

On the face of it, you’d think a genuinely universal issue that arouses passions and anger in countries around the world would make a perfect campaign issue. The challenge is to channel the sense of malaise (which our 85 richest plutocrats = 3.5 billion poorest killer fact so graphically captured) into specifics. Arguably, that’s where Occupy and other inequality protest movements have fallen down. We need to be crystal clear on what we want people to do, how it will make a difference, and what success would look like.

Another issue is cash. Our market research (and we do a lot of it) suggests that people in the UK respond to inequality through association – ‘yes, that reflects the world I live in’. Activists get fired up, as do intellectuals– as Pikettymania demonstrates. But what the wider public don’t do is then put their hands in their pockets. OK this is not a fundraising campaign, but raising funds from the public is vital to Oxfam’s work, so if this harms our income, then Houston, we have a problem.

If inequality was a planeIn practice, a lot of our fundraising will focus on Oxfam’s work on the ground – people-to-people empathy will always be key. But you can’t insulate campaign messaging from fundraising – one is bound to affect the other. At the very least, our inequality narrative needs to avoid undermining that sense of helping real people, and preferably put a human face on what can be quite abstract discussions of inequality and injustice. And fundraising mustn’t undermine the positive framing of the campaign – a very tricky balancing act.

I’ve tried to summarize the different broad categories of campaign below, along with their pros and cons. The usual apologies for creating grotesque caricatures to draw out the contrasts

Type 1: Feed the Hungry (traditional, negative frame campaign)

Positives: Gets to Northern publics and raises shedloads of cash, which enables you to feed more people; can link to some good advocacy work (eg on aid, tax evasion etc)

Negatives: Reinforces stereotypes, offends many people in developing countries, may lead to compassion fatigue

Type 2: Be part of a fabulous future (positive frame campaign)

Positives: Appeals to broader group of people. More accurate portrayal of a world where many social/economic indicators are getting better.

Negatives: Difficult fit with traditional campaign formula of ‘problem, solution, villain’. Can all get a bit Cumbaya. Nightmare for fundraising.

Type 3: We’re all in this [bad place] together (globally shared injustice)

Positives: Immediate association, built on people’s lived experience, moves beyond increasingly outmoded distinctions between North and Southdilbert-income-inequality-and-fairness

Negatives: Hard to turn a global malaise into a set of plausible specific targets, either for individual choices or policy decisions. Oh, and Northern governments seem very sensitive to criticism, and start accusing you of being political (though perfectly happy if you make similar criticisms of southern governments).

Personally, I’m delighted that Oxfam is taking on a type 3 campaign that genuinely moves us beyond the old North-South divide. It feels radical, progressive and somehow more respectful – that’s the kind of organization I want to work for. But that doesn’t mean it’s going to be easy.

October 1, 2014
Duncan Green