Tuesday, 13 March 2012


In the past, they branded criminals with a mark on the face, using a hot iron or tattoo. This week, “the world’s worst war criminal” was branded by a highly successful ad campaign.

Five days ago, when the red and black KONY 2012 logo flashed across my screen, I assumed it was either the launch of some kind of Kindle-from-Sony or a funky new fashion label. As it happens, the latter assumption wasn’t entirely wrong. If you haven’t got your must-wear KONY 2012 metal bracelet yet, bad luck. At $30-for-two they were a snip, particularly seeing as you got to “shape history” at the same time.

In case you’ve missed all the Joseph Kony ballyhoo (where are you living? on an island in the Murrumbidgee?) this grotesque African warlord is rapidly becoming the world’s most famous person, thanks to his unsavoury habits of abducting African children, getting them to kill their parents, sexually enslaving them, and mutilating those who displease.

Or rather, thanks to a highly effective social media campaign that uses every trick in the adman’s book; an eye-catching logo, an exciting countdown to build awareness and a powerful call to action.

Using breath-taking hyperbole, this online phenomenon is strategically reminiscent of high adrenalin marketing campaigns for films and computer games combined with the “one-night-to-save-the-world” faux activism of Earth Hour – and, indeed, has already sucked the oxygen from this year’s imminent Earth Hour.

An ad campaign for our times, KONY 2012 is tailored to those who need constant stimulation, thrive on ‘Oh My God!” online emotions, crave individual recognition and have the attention span of guppies. “The next 27 minutes are an experiment,” warns the filmmaker and narrator, Jason Russell, at the beginning of the youtube clip that so far has been viewed by 70 million people, “but in order for it to work you have to pay attention.” To ensure you do, the film uses every advertising technique available, from anthemic rock songs to fist-punching crowds to take you on a roller-coaster of emotions, linking the future of humanity to the fate of this African scumbag to the actions of you and your facebook pals. To make it personal, there’s a young boy called Gavin for us to channel our emotions through. Advertisers have long exploited the charm of the cute kid who looks up to his Dad (remember those Telstra ads and the rabbit-proof Wall of China?) and this film follows the format, promising that with your help Gavin can “grow up in a better world.”

“Star Wars” gets mentioned, allowing Gavin and the viewers to contemplate just how evil Darth, I mean Joseph, Kony really is. A second boy, Jacob, who was abducted by the LRA, is far more relevant, and moving. “They killed him using panga,” he says, tearfully, as he recounts his own brother’s death. “They cut his neck.” This information isn’t quite good enough for the film-maker, clearly a member of today’s visually-obsessed generation. “Did you see it?” he asks, to which Jacob confirms: “I saw it.” This is the most sinister part of the film, but it also gets to the heart of the advertising strategy, as Russell remarks “If that happened one night in America it would be on the cover of Newsweek.”

To “make the unseen visible” is the aim of the campaign. Tick, job done. Kony is now the celebrity’s criminal celebrity of choice, making headlines around the world and endorsed (or rather, condemned) by the likes of Oprah, the Kardashians, George Clooney et al.

There’s a brief rundown of Kony’s crimes, and of the Invisible Children foundation’s charity work, which again sounds very ‘George Lucas.’ “We built an early warning radio network to protect villages from rebel attacks.” But mostly the film is an emotional plea with a strong call to action; there are email petitions, online tracking of your progress, an action-packed Action Pack, donations “funded by an army of young people” and – crucial to all successful social media campaigns - a genuine real life “offline” event. In this instance, it’s a global bill-postering due on the night of April 20.

There’s not just one catchy slogan, there’s dozens, such as “We’ve heard their cries”, “We will fight war”, “The game has new rules” and “Cover the night.” Crucially, there’s a cut-off point designed to galvanise the apathetic. “This movie expires on Dec 31 2012,” warns Russell.

Using classic marketing techniques, the film-maker has created a mass movement with a single-minded goal. It’s the first time anyone has turned catching a real-life war criminal into a branded computer game.

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