In the weeks leading up to the United Nation’s first-ever World Humanitarian Summit May 23-24, people sitting in the comfort of their intact homes have been virtually confronted with impossible choices, such as whether to hang on to the edge of a lifeboat in stormy ocean waters or to let go in order to rescue an infant. Or, would you stay silent if people are dying from dehydration in the truck that is smuggling you across a border, rather than risk a beating by protesting?
There are no “right” answers; only repercussions to split-second, life-or-death decisions similar to ones that many of the 125 million people who are fleeing conflict, or are displaced by other natural or man-made crises, are forced to make.
After you complete the virtual experience — which is aptly described as "Choose Your Own Adventure" meets Oregon Trail — there are options for sharing your personalized experience with your Facebook followers. Or you can tweet the leader of your country — e.g., @POTUS #sharehumanity — to “commit to action.” Or you can read the stories of some refugees who have actually faced the harrowing choices represented in the scenarios.
“A lot of the time we were actually reducing how terrifying the stories were, because we thought it could be a bit overwhelming as an experience,” recalls Rohan Porteous, creative director of Agency, New York, the nonprofit, cause-driven “social business” that created the campaign. “We didn’t want to make it too easy on people. But at the same time, we didn’t want people to switch off because they were seeing catastrophe after catastrophe.”
The campaign also includes a fast-cut, 93-second film featuring influencers such as Cody Simpson, Daniel Craig, Rosario Dawsonand Princess Haya Bint Al Hussein. It graphically outlines the problems refugees face while urging viewers to go to ImpossibleChoice.org and “urge our global leaders to show up and take action.” It has also engaged what it calls “champions of humanity”: 20 of them, ranging from daddy and mommy bloggers to CEOs.
‘Pushing The Boundaries’
The campaign is “pushing the boundaries,” says Belinda Gurd, who handles strategic communications for the U.N.’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. “We don’t often go out with a call to action as strong as this because we’re obviously run by the member states.”
If you’ve ever found yourself frustrated by corporate politics trying to get a simple brand campaign approved, imagine what it must be like to get consensus from 193 countries with their own agendas.
The While House announced this week that the four-person U.S. delegation to the summit will be led by Gayle Smith, administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development. As Smith — and heads of state, business leaders, civil society representatives and humanitarian workers also participating in the summit — descend an escalator leading to the main meeting room on Monday, they’ll see a massive screen before them.
A 30-secord version of the celebrity-studded film will be playing. It will end with the numbers generated by the social media campaign — such as how many “Impossible Choices” journeys people have taken around the world (more than 500,000 so far) and how many world leaders were tweeted “so that they can really see there’s actually this public mobilization that’s happening around why they’re there,” says Gurd.
Even if these leaders are only exposed to the content for a few seconds, the intent is that they’ll be exposed to the major takeaways from the campaign “and be influenced, whether it’s in a big way or a small way,” says Porteous.
“How often do you ever get to have a captive audience and say, ‘hey guys, people are watching you'?" asks Gurd. "And you have to do stuff. And it has to count. Because we’re making sure that everybody knows about it.”
The pressure will continue as the conference unfolds. There will be a celebrity PSA running in Times Square, social media live feeds on the U.N. Web site, and “media partnerships” to keep the heat on countries to make commitments to U.N. secretary-general Ban Ki-moon’s agenda to “place humanity at the center of global decision-making.”
“It’s unprecedented for us to actually be talking to the people that fund us,” points out Gurd. “But we’ve had such strong support from senior management. Everybody is behind us, which shows that there is massive integrity behind what we’re trying to achieve. If we’re willing to put pressure on these people, and get the public to put pressure on these people to make commitments, you can see how important it is. Because often we don’t say anything at all.”