Movember and the Commodification of Social Causes

Movember has been around for a couple of years, but seems to be catching on more this year. I haven’t joined in. I just think I look pretty good with a moustache.

I apologize for the hair, but it is a hangover from Oc-fro-ber (raising awareness of electrical safety). Actually I don't apologize. I think the hair compliments the moustache quite well. I also just made up Ocfrober (electical safety month), but if BC Hydro wants to use it I only charge a small consultancy fee.

I don’t have a problem with Movember. I think it can be a good thing if people are willing to put themselves out there to raise money and attention for a cause. What interests me is that there seems to be a commodification taking place in which advocates are focused on marketing and selling their causes through gimmicky or viral methods. I recently listened to an old LSE (London School of Economics) talk on celebrities and humanitarian work and it gave me the same impression. The speakers touched on many issues, but the one thing that stood out for me was the fact that many humanitarian organizations are using, and sometimes hiring, celebrities to advocate for their cause in the same way that a company would hire the celebrity to advertise their product.

It would seem that organisations are now targeting possible supporters as consumers. Give people a catchy superficial glimpse into your cause, or do something attention getting – like growing a moustache, climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro, or riding a long board from Nairobi to Mombasa – and people will reach for their wallets, forward an email, click the 'like' button, or paste something on their status on facebook.

For the most part we are a market-driven attention deficit society, so maybe humanitarian organizations need to compete for our attention and money the same way that profit-making organizations do. The problem I see is that by looking at people simply as consumers there is little chance for any meaningful engagement. When causes need to be sold as products then the people affected will need to be packaged in a certain way.

An example of this is a recent awareness raising campaign for autism – Communication Shutdown Day for Autism - that called on people to participate in a day of social media silence. I assume this was to give people an appreciation for communication difficulties. However, a number of people with autism felt that this awareness raising campaign did not represent them and started a counter-campaign, Autistics Speaking Day, which was planned for the same day as the Communication Shutdown and called on people with Autism to use social media to tell their stories.

November 12, 2010

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