Kony 2012: The biggest social media experiment in history ends in failure – so why is nobody talking about it?

Adam Ferrier NakedIf the Kony 2012 campaign had its way, the world would have woken up to cities covered in posters on Saturday. In this guest post, Adam Ferrier discusses why it didn’t happen.

Kony 2012 has made the world a sadder, more cynical place. Kony 2012 has harnessed the powers of social media and advertising, blended them with the worst of evangelical christianity, and duped the world.   

I’ve been pretty negative about the campaign since I first heard about it, here, here and here. Mumbrella has asked me to put a point of view forward as to why it this campaign failed – here it is.

kony 2012Kony 2012 is advertising at its worst. At its worst advertising can make the most ridiculous of products seem irresistible. This type of advertising was based about creating a desirable image around an unsubstantiated product. However, this type of advertising thankfully gets found out, now more than ever. Through social media and the wisdom of the crowds everything that’s based on image, and lacking in substance gets torn apart. However, things have worked slightly differently with Kony 2012, a massive failure, that the social media twit-faces (and much of the media) have ignored. Here’s why:

Advertising doesn’t work by providing facts and figures; presenting both sides of an argument, and hoping you make the right decision. Advertising (according to Dave Trott) is a master to two constructs:

  1. Desire; what can I say about my product that will make it irresistible. This could be a tangible thing (something about the product), or an intangible thing (something not about the product at all) – in fact to create desire you can say just about anything at all;
  2. Permission; what do I say about the product so someone gives themselves permission to act on the desire I’ve created. For example ‘Buy my creamy indulgent ice-cream (desire), it’s 97% fat free (permission)’.

The advertising tactics Kony2012 embraced were:

Desire: Koni2012 used every trick in the handbook of advertising 101 to build a strong emotional response. Guilt about inaction, close ups of children, big music ending in a crescendo, slow motion to build drama, sweaty, evil looking bad guys. It wasn’t story telling, it was manipulation.

Permission: He gave people the excuse to act via two clever techniques; scarcity; act now or miss out, social norming, this is the new world order, act now everyone else is. He’s also ensured other well known popular celebrities are involved, modeling the appropriate behaviour so others follow (like sheep). There were also some light touch statistics and funny diagrams thrown in to make the cause seem real and alive today.

The campaign created an emotional connection, and he provided a (thin) rational justification. He then coupled this with a simple action – buy an action kit, like the video, pass it on. He then asked everyone to post the posters they received in the mail up on a night of action to ‘cover the night’ in GetKony propaganda on April 20th. He ensured people felt motivated to act, and then he made it easy for them to do so – brilliant!

However, April 20 was meant to be the night of mass action where the world was covered in ‘GetKony’ messaging and it failed. People did not join in. Here’s why – before April 20 the crowd (us) found out the truth about the organisation. The truth was:

The organisation: is an evangelical fundamentalist christian movement. It recruits young people to spread its message. The organisation has been criticised for spending a lot of its revenue on making cool movies to promote its cause, ie It’s style over substance. It wasn’t obvious the organisation was so religiously orientated at first.

The Message: The original message was as we all know quickly found out to be full of holes and untruths. To the point where the president of Uganda created his own YouTube video to make many corrections.

The action: People were asked to ‘Get Kony’, a man who no longer lives in Uganda, and whose negative influence is currently minimal compared to many other challenges faced on the African continent. Further, it was never clear how buying an action kit, and showing your support by ‘covering the night’, was linked to getting Kony.

The Leader: Jason Russel always seemed more cult leader than saviour to me. More L. Ron Hubbard than Mother Teresa. His bizarre behaviour subsequently, and evangelical rants previously further deminished his credibility.

In short the cause was found out as being a sham, and people no longer wanted to associate themselves with it. However, the interesting thing to me was not the fact it bombed, but the reaction. There has been very little written about it, or discussed about it. Broadcast media and the social media people alike were very silent on the issue. This is amazing. The biggest social media experiment with 150 million participants ends in a massive failure and no ones talking about it (it didn’t trend on Twitter anywhere). Why?

Before people found out it was a hoax (of sorts) 150 million people acted towards this organisation and showed their support in front of family and friends on social media. Many of you publicly declared your support for Invisible Children and its cause. You took action, just by passing it on, liking it, or even worse, buying an action kit (and that’s why they were so cheap!)

Once you’ve acted they’ve succeeded. They’ve created a sense of cognitive dissonance that you must redress. If you passed the Get Kony message on you’re saying ‘I support this cause’, then you will have changed your (previously probably neutral) thoughts and feelings to agree with that action. Hence there were 150m people around with their thoughts feelings and actions all nicely aligned around supporting Invisible Children and Jason Russell.

However, as more information came to light about the organisation’s fictitious goals and their leader’s increasingly erratic behaviour (past and present) they couldn’t change their views. As the ‘night of action’ turned into a failure people didn’t feel comfortable declaring they were wrong, or they were duped. They had already acted towards the cause. To back out now will make them (you) look silly. That was the power of action – and Jason Russell knew this.

This is the reason why there is relative silence even though the biggest social media experiment ever failed. The silence can be explained by muted embarrassment from prior supporters, and quiet smugness from the detractors.

Kony2012 has proven, (and its just one of many causes that has and will continue to), you can create a fictitious cause, with a retarded goal and everyone will join in. However, social media will find you out, Big Brother is everywhere.

So would I have conceded, and changed my mind if the night of action had been a success? It wouldn’t have been.

  • Adam Ferrier is global head of behavioral science at Naked Communications

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