The television flashes images of a skeletal little girl whose ribs seem to be popping out of her ballooning stomach as she sits in a pile of mud and stares at the camera with large pleading eyes. A “1-800” number flashes on the bottom of the screen. A celebrity does a Public Service Announcement for building wells in Africa. YouTube has sharp pre-packaged videos pulling at our heartstrings, and even months after being released, the KONY 2012 viral video continues to float around the internet.
For Westernized cultures saturated with various forms of media and technologically driven information, social justice is becoming increasingly "packaged," carefully marketed, and commercially manufactured to be a product that incorporates the mission it represents.
Whether social justice organizations should be doing this is debatable. Like everyone else, they’re trying to survive in a capitalistic system that ruthlessly competes for our every dollar. The only problem is that we aren’t the ultimate consumers. For social justice non-profit groups, the sick, poor, starving, abused, and desolate are the true consumers; we’re just the financial and volunteer base needed to keep the system working. To do this, organizations are discovering that a corporate business model is sometimes the only way to survive — and sometimes thrive — within the cutthroat world of advertising and solicitation.
Thus, they create something, anything really, that grabs our attention and entices us to join their cause. This isn’t exactly easy when we're constantly distracted by computers, laptops, tablets, smart phones, television, movies, music, Facebook, Twitter, Youtube, Reddit, Buzzfeed, and thousands of other forms of entertainment and information.
Maybe it's something as simple as creating a Facebook meme, or receiving a handmade thank-you card and a personal photograph from a malnourished child you're sponsoring, or owning an article of clothing for giving to the (RED) Campaign, or getting a pair of shoes from TOMS.com.
This is why organizations create viral videos, flaunt celebrity endorsements, offer appreciation gifts, construct emotional TV commercials, create text-in donation campaigns, and try to provide a unique experience for supporters — it's Marketing 101. They create a brand, hoping that it will be remembered, and then make it as easily accessible as possible.
The sales formula is effective: attract, provide a product, and be convenient. Social justice has never been so commercially attractive and efficient. All we need to do is find a cause, click on a link, and type in our credit card information. Boom! Someone living thousands of miles away can now have a source of clean water — a free water bottle is shipped to our address as a thank-you gift and a tax receipt is immediately sent to our inbox. How simple is that?
In a perfect world, people would join and donate to social justice organizations without needing something in return. And while these individuals do exist, cheap gimmicks and superficial motivational techniques are still needed in order to sway the masses towards the cause.
Even small and localized groups are finding the need to compete for volunteers. Food shelves turn collection events and packaging into contests — “Which group can pack the most aid boxes in an hour!?” Volunteer facilities transform into club-like atmospheres where upbeat rock music blares and kids can host birthday parties while making the world a better place at the same time. Afterward, volunteers get their photos taken and printed out as mementos of their charity, and prizes are randomly awarded to lucky individuals. It’s as if simply working for a good cause isn’t good enough.
My own initial experience with social justice happened by accident while participating in a fundraising project for starving children. Unbeknownst to me, my church youth group was raising money for hungry children enduring famine in Africa, but I was there simply to enjoy an overnight with my friends — watching movies and playing Sardines all night while not being allowed to eat anything for an extended period of time in an effort to teach us what being hungry really felt like. It was fun, and I probably raised about $100 (from my grandparents).
Detractors will say that these cheap marketing schemes come with a price — namely, the vast amounts of money used for publicity should be spent helping causes more directly. They also suggest that many people donate to “inefficient” or downright corrupt organizations simply because they’re more visible. Social justice issues are also culturally, politically, economically, and socially complex and can’t be simply communicated through a 20-second commercial or ad campaign. These are all valid points.
No organization is perfect, and scumbag groups are out there, but for the most part, the way social justice organizations have adapted and infiltrated into our entertainment, business, and social cultures has been a good thing.
Never before have we had so many resources and such vast amounts of information at our fingertips. Sure, these trendy fads, viral videos, emotionally manipulative commercials, and cheesy donation letters shouldn't be our motivation for doing social justice, but sometimes this is what it takes to get the job done and grab our attention.
Everyone starts somewhere, and if one of these marketing ploys saves a life or is the hook that converts us to being passionate about a specific cause, so be it.
Stephen Mattson has written for Relevant, Red Letter Christians and The Burnside Writer's Collective. He graduated from the Moody Bible Institute and is currently on staff at University of Northwestern – St. Paul, Minn. Follow him on Twitter @mikta.