How to avoid Ed Sheeran’s poverty porn marketing disaster

Ed Sheeran thought he was doing a good deed, raising money for destitute Liberians. 

He stars in a video in which he meets Liberian children who live on the streets, their families having been destroyed by Ebola and poverty. 

The goal of the video is to raise awareness, and presumably money, but instead, it raises ire.  It won a “most offensive” charity campaign of 2017 distinction awarded by a Norwegian charity watchdog group that accuses him of producing “poverty porn.”  (Here is an interesting piece in the NY Times by Tariro Mzezewa on the subject).  

I don’t know if it is any worse than the other contenders, but it is a superb disaster.

 

If you watch the video there is little doubt that Sheeran means well and wants to help, so what makes it offensive? 

They got the story wrong.

In the video, Sheeran is the hero and there is no plan.  This is why it comes across as something akin to pornography, it is just images of poverty with Sheeran, the well-fed white savior crying over their emaciated existence. 

And then the video takes a turn for the worse.  

Sheeran commits to finding a house for a few kids standing in a street teeming with need.  His plan may help four or five kids and fills a genuine need he has but it is all about him, and feels dramatically insufficient in the face of the Liberian problem is highlighting.    

Not only does it not engage me, the viewer, it makes me feel uncomfortable, like a voyeur.

There is a simple rule: if you want to inspire your audience to action, don’t make them feel uncomfortable. 

How they could have made the story work

The first step is to figure out what they want from the video and make the audience the hero.  That isn’t entirely clear from this video, there is a vague call to donate money but vague calls to action are not effective. 

Assuming the objective is to raise funds, they must inspire us, the viewers, to care.    

So, Sheeran must get out of the way and make the audience hero.  The story should emphasize my need for decency and my desire to help.  The producers should establish early on that this video is about how I can make a difference in Liberia and in the lives of the children they are highlighting. 

Instead of a random call for donations, they should present a plan.  What are we going to do to address the problem?  How will my contribution help? 

Compare this to Alyssa Milano's Unicef commercial where the viewer is the hero, presented with a situation and a plan: just 50 cents a day can help solve the problem. 

I think there is a lot of room to improve the UNICEF ads, but keeping the audience front and center and giving them a clear plan is vital to creating engagement.  And they are worlds better than the Sheeran video.  

Sheeran cannot be the hero in this video, he must be the guide.  He will show us how we can become the heroes.  He’ll really seal the deal by helping us go through some transformative experience. 

What this means for your marketing: remember it is not about you.

Fundamentally the producers of this video forgot that it isn’t about Sheeran, it is about the audience. 

When you are producing your story and your marketing remember: the audience is the hero.  In all of your campaigns, you are the guide with a plan. 

Sheeran meant well, but the story didn’t work, which is a shame because creating a good story isn’t that hard.  

Oh and tell a great brand story - one that people can relate to.  

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