Next Big Design: The Branding of Evil

Thursday, April 5, 2012

The Branding of Evil

Last month a YouTube video was released by a man named Jason Russell (a member of the Invisible Children activist group) who took it on himself to ‘award’ a vicious warlord in Uganda with celebrity in the hopes of raising enough awareness to bring the inhumane politics to an end. The name of the warlord is Joseph Kony and Russell’s video is an introduction of Kony to the mainstream by way of YouTube. The video became an internet phenomenon with over 100 million views since its launch. Today the sequel to this video has launched. see video

Essentially Russell and Invisible Children with the help of celebrities like George Clooney and P. Diddy have created a brand for Kony. They are attempting to make what has been invisible for the past 20 years visible to the world. The first video encourages all of us to use April 20 as a day to promote Kony’s name “grass-roots” style in our streets.

Russell included footage of himself educating his young son about the evils of Kony, an action that both implicitly demonstrates the level of his passion about ending Kony’s reign and reinforces his message to all of us to take human rights violations personally. see video

What is possibly most noteworthy about the Part I video is that it was created by activists and not politicians. The Kony videos demonstrate how political activism is becoming more and more sophisticated, in this case by practicing branding and propaganda techniques used mostly by powerful corporations and governments to date. In the past political activism was more easily marginalized by the political attitudes of the status quo. But when 100 million people are made aware of something its fair to say that that idea or ‘product’ has hit the mainstream despite critics' attempts at labeling the phenomenon as "slacktivism".

Last year at the Destination Design Management and FUSE conferences Ben Blumenfeld, creative lead at Facebook, spoke about Oscar Morales and Morales’ virally powerful stance against the FARC in Colombia through a Facebook page he created go to page. While the FARC (known for kidnapping and hostage taking) and Kony are worlds apart from each other, the ever shrinking world of global awareness through social media platforms brings them together for any of us to investigate at a moment’s notice. These are real people in real situations sharing stories and calling out for help on Facebook and Youtube and they are being heard like never before; globally and as Russell has shown by tens of millions of people.

The voice of human rights in general is finding empowerment through the immediacy of social media and proving that every day people can facilitate change despite the actions of their governments.

After Blumenfeld’s talk at our DDM conference in San Francisco I approached him about what was going on in the Democratic Republic of Congo (a neighboring country to Uganda). I mentioned the A Thousand Sisters Facebook page which was created by Congo activist Lisa Shannon. He wasn’t familiar with the group or the conflict. News from that remote region of the world is hard to come by. Much of the trouble in that region of Africa looks the same to westerners because of the extreme conditions that we hear about (child soldiers, sexual slavery, murder, rape, mutilation, on and on…). We have a vague understanding of what goes on but it is fair to say that we in the U.S. as a collective body of people have shown that we really don’t feel a connection to the atrocities. The experiences are so horrific that they don’t even seem real to us. I’m wondering if Kony 2012 will change this.

Mainstream movies like Blood Diamond may temporarily ‘connect’ us to what’s going on but from a viewer’s standpoint we can then place the ‘drama’ behind the story in the same psychological space as other movies that we’ve seen. The story then remains just a story to us.

What I am referring to in this blog as the ‘branding of evil’ creates a connection for us on another level. KONY 2012 is an activist promotion that mirrors the United States campaign against Osama Bin Laden. It brings the horrors in Africa home to us by way of campaign imagery and documentary discussion. It places a face on the depraved African politics in the way that Bin Laden’s face became synonymous with 911. It’s a brilliant leap forward for the mission of the Invisible Children group. It is also disruptive, upsetting and scary.

The “branding of evil” can have a reverse effect making the atrocities very real (even “hyper real”) and in our face… Putting Kony’s name on a campaign banner conjures up a glorification of his character that can be either good or bad, though black and red are reminiscent of the Nazi party which as we all know carries enormous historical brevity. Campaigning for Kony is an innovative concept and it could very well be the instigator that shocks us into acknowledging the horrific images of eastern-central Africa as a reality. Though, the first video in particular has come under a lot of criticism because of what some feel are inaccurate claims and what others feel to be the right course of action.

While volumes of books can be written on this subject its important to note that so much of our every day life is inundated with inaccurate political accounts and that its only fair to give this subject its due acknowledgement. While Jason Russell’s facts, according to critics, may not all be together we can all understand his message, his efforts and his intentions through the brand that he has helped to create and promote with this video.

Apart from that I will add to anyone who reads this to keep the debates and discussions alive. Don’t be afraid to speak out. Don’t be afraid to be wrong and always, always fight what you see to be evil!

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