Kony 2012 and the Branding of Invisible Children

So: the Kony video. Since I spent last week in a nightmare of my own making, I missed the opportunity to OMG about it in concert with the rest of the broadband-enabled universe. In the days since then, the video went hyperviral, awakening sincere 20-somethings to the existence of an exotic realm called "Uganda" and enduring five backlashes and six reverse-backlashes. Then everybody moved on to more pressing matters, before lapping back around for a few final flurries.

There's no point in weighing in on the politics - though like many of my fellow patriots, I'd like to go on the record as an opponent of kidnapping-killer-warlord-type people. There's also no point in debating or analyzing the Kony video's rhetorical approach. It is framed in such a manner that only two conclusions can be reached - Kony bad! People trying to awaken ruling class to Kony's badness, especially passionate scarf-wearing filmmaker dad guy, good! - and, as such, is as brilliant, heartbreaking, infuriating and emotionally and intellectually manipulative as any viral-minded campaign of its ilk.

No, I'd rather confine my discussion to branding effectiveness - namely, how other organizations, both for- and non-profit, can brand itself as indelibly as Invisible Children, a relatively obscure NGO as late as ten days ago, has via the Kony campaign. Here's what such groups need to do.

1. Find a bogeyman: Never mind that Central Africa will remain pretty well screwed whether or not Kony is brought to justice. Invisible Children shrewdly recognizes that a laundry list of human-rights abuses and humanitarian concerns won't generate the same gut response as honing the pitchforks for a single oily despot.

In essence, the video is a wanted-dead-or-alive poster for the social-media age, even as it tells us priceless little about Kony. Who are his partners in crime? Where did he come from? What motivates him? That's all beside the point. Just look at the photos - he's a bad dude. Heck to Betsy, his eyes are as black as his soul! And now he's trending on Twitter. That'll learn him.

2. Play the "won't somebody PLEASE think of the children?" card: As a new parent, I'm starting to understand that nothing awakens the inner vigilante like a threat to vulnerable kids. This horrific element of the Kony savagery doesn't need to be double-dramatized, but Invisible Children plays it up all the same.

The pivotal moment to this end is the filmmaker's decision to document his five-year-old son's introduction to Kony, via the following master class in parental communication: "Joseph Kony, he has, uh, an army, okay? And what he does is he takes children from their parents, and he gives them a gun to shoot, and he makes them shoot and kill other people." Me, I'll probably wait until the cable provider yanks ESPN in a dispute over carriage fees before awakening my kid to mankind's inherent barbarism, but I'm old-fashioned that way.

3. Self-aggrandize like nobody's watching: Outside of adding testimonials from Ban Ki-moon or Bono, Invisible Children couldn't have positioned itself and its mission as any braver or more noble-intentioned. Truly, the video ranks among the most self-impressed pieces of marketing and branding in the history of the Internet. Here's a brief list of pronouncements: "We are not just studying human history - we are shaping it," "if we succeed, we change the course of human history," "our goal is to change the conversation about culture," "nothing is more powerful than an idea whose time has come ['has come' then bleeds into 'is now']", etc.

Is it true? Sure, because the man in the well-edited, dramatically scored, neatly packaged video says so (note the presence of subtitles, even when the speaker's voice is clear). Invisible Children, and those who follow in its righteous path, need only pray that the real world doesn't intrude on its spotlight dance, whether in the form of an equally dramatic humanitarian crisis or another Kanye West awards-show tantrum. Nonetheless, here's hoping that when somebody rubs Kony out, the real New York Times front page apes the fake one produced for the video (which heralds his takedown in the same font/point size as the headline that ran on September 12, 2001, complete with a "The World agrees, Kony is the 'Worst'" subhed). Really.

4. Brand your supporters: Those who have rallied behind the Invisible Children banner come off better in the video than anyone except the filmmaker and his mop-haired scamp of a kid. Just look at the orderliness with which they assemble for the cameras! And they're such a multiculturally diverse bunch, and so young and good-looking, and several of them play the acoustic guitar (Bob Marley covers, I have to assume).

Here's the thing, though. If the Invisible Child movement is so huge and unstoppable, why hasn't anyone attempted to bring me into its fold until now? What about me doesn't appeal to the fresh- faced masses? I'm almost thin and blessed with favorably aligned eyebrows. Will they accept me as one of their own, or have I missed the cute-coordinated-outrage boat? Sad.

5. Get to the damn point: This is a teensy gripe, actually. Invisible Children devotes the first eight minutes of the video to quick-cut montages, turbo-zoom-from-above map views and babble about connectedness and community. With the sound off, you might think you're watching a commercial for Google+.

The first mention of Joseph Kony and the Lord's Resistance Army comes at the 8:46 mark, which is six minutes too late. Hell, even the Dalai Lama knows that immediate blind outrage is the most effective kind. Also, we don't really need to hear about how the group has targeted 20 "culture makers," including Ben Affleck and Taylor Swift. It can't be that crucial to get buy-in from the folks in the gifting suite at the People's Choice awards, can it?

6. Have a response at the ready: Invisible Children had to know it would be hammered by any number of critics, especially since some believe that the organization is - how can I put this elegantly? - full of fraud and full of shit. Kudos, then, to whoever prepared this comprehensive primer in advance of the video's debut. The Kony campaign is as subtle as a fart in a spacesuit, as my grandfather was fond of saying; so too have been the responses and counter-responses. Preparedness is underrated, in PR as in mountaineering.

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1 comment about "Kony 2012 and the Branding of Invisible Children".
  1. Will Jones from GSDM , March 13, 2012 at 6 p.m.
    Had to get a paper towel to wipe up the bitterness that oozed from this article. Uganda is not exactly a subtle place so documenting it may not be either. For someone that comments/advises on media and perhaps, it's utility and application (not sure what exactly versed in your work; I'm "unprepared" on that front), it's amazing how quickly you tear a successful application of media apart. Keep it up, the world can certainly use more critics. Hopefully that wasn't too subtle for you...