Campaigning videos: more than ticking boxes

Videos! It’s where it’s at these days for non-profits, it would seem. “Get viterate” (video literate) was the featured advice on a recent post at the Gates Foundation blog, “5 Experts Share Top Social Media Advice for Nonprofits.” Ever more non-profit organizations are sinking thousands — if not hundreds of thousands — of dollars into videos and video competitions to promote their campaigns, build their brands and improve citizen engagement.

Yet just like when I was an online editor for National Public Radio five years ago (which is light-years in social media time), just doing the latest cool thing on the Internet doesn’t actually get you to your goals (unless you goal is strictly ticking the box that you used video and promoted it through social media channels). In a matter of days last week, I saw two big campaign videos from two big non-profit/public organizations, one which was absolutely wonderful (Rainforest Alliance) and one which was absolutely tone deaf and provoked its own scandal (European Parliament). I thought I’d share them here and my thoughts. Perhaps comparing these two extreme examples will spark some strategic thinking to help you out next time your boss asks you to produce a video that will get half a million likes on Facebook.

First I’ll share the bad, because I like to end things with the good. (As a child, I ate the beans first and ended with the buttery noodles. I’m sure that says something deep and profound about me.)

That video about freedom of speech? Yeah, we had to pull it. (!)

This year is the “Year of Citizens” as declared by the European Parliament, and as part of their campaign to make Europeans more aware of the fantastic rights we have as citizens of our wonderful countries, the EP is running a public information campaign. As part of the campaign, the EP, with a private agency in Belgium, produced a 90-second video about freedom of speech. Set on a German train, the video features a ticket inspector who walks into the train car and announces that, in accordance with a new regulation, passengers are not allowed to discuss certain potentially uncomfortable topics including religion, immigration policy and corruption. The video is shot in a real-life train and hidden cameras captured the shocked reaction of the passengers, who first responded like it was a joke, and then questioned the inspector indignantly.

As explained in the German magazine Der Spiegel, the film provoked a sizable and not entirely positive reaction. With German leaders already paraded in effigy (and sometimes with painted-on Hitler mustaches) in some European countries hit hard by imposed austerity measures, a German representative in the EP characterized the video in Der Spiegel as “gross thoughtlessness,” stating, “In times when Germany is being linked to Nazi symbols due to its calls for austerity, this type of advertisement is irresponsible.” (My own translation.)

Whether or not you think Germany is the big bad boss of Europe, the video proved itself tone deaf. Its greatest failure was that it utterly failed to recognize current trends and debates amongst its target audience (jumping on the let’s-vilify-Germany bandwagon isn’t a hot idea right now for the EP). A couple of common factors plague campaigning videos like this one from the EP, such as:

  • They can take a long time to produce and therefore may be dated by the time they’re ready.
  • They can be costly, making their producers loathe to scrap them if the concept no longer works.
  • They may be produced by private firms that have little understanding of the mission, values and target demographic of a non-profit organization.

It would seem that these factors, and I imagine others as well, led to a costly flop. The video has been pulled from the EP’s Facebook page and is no longer available on YouTube. The link I provide above is buried on Vimeo.

Frogs! Forests! Fantastic!

Now that we’ve had our yucky beans (the thoughtless), let’s move on to those buttery noodles (the thoughtful). The Rainforest Alliance, in its ongoing branding of itself as a frog (I wonder if they did focus groups for that?) has produced a humorous, highly relatable, informative video about how ordinary people can do their part for the environment.

The video features a Prius-driving, yoga-practicing, plaid-shirt-wearing father who wants to help the environment, gets swept away in a save-the-rainforest fantasy (helped by his iPad and Siri), and eventually realizes that he can support conservation and not lose his family by buying products approved by the Rainforest Alliance (“follow the frog”).

Watch it yourself and I can pretty much guarantee you’ll feel moved and entertained. What else is great about this video? High production values without looking “slick” (don’t look like you spent too much money), good recognition of our own failings as “do-gooders” in the developing world (speaking to the target audience) and a clear ask at the end (buy products with the Rainforest Alliance seal).


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