Kony 2012: Is there a marketing angle? No

The trade publications are still full of it. Kony 2012: the marketing angle. Apparently, the 30 minute video viral, which has now attracted about 85 million viewers on YouTube, is replete with key “learnings”  for anyone working in the marcoms biz.

Just what these lessons are eludes me. To be sure, the exposé of child murderer, rapist and serial sadist Joseph Kony is a story compellingly told, which probably accounts for its success in holding the butterfly attention of the social media generation for a full half-hour, rather than the conventional 2 minutes maximum prescribed by digital lore.

But to infer from this that amateur film-maker and social activist Jason Russell has distilled an alchemistic formula that can be meaningfully applied to brands and brand management is, frankly, ludicrous.

If there is a universal truth behind this amazingly successful video viral, it is the one first coined by Andy Warhol: “In the future, everyone will be world-famous for 15 minutes.”

Sadly, that 15 minutes of fame has been visited upon Russell, and he has paid the price in inexpungeable personal humiliation and a nervous breakdown that has landed him in hospital, probably for months. Most of us, like Russell, are not very good at handling fame when it comes knocking at the door.

Personal misfortune aside, is there anything else to be learned from Kony 2012? Surely, the cynic will say, it is no more than an amplified instance of “Fenton/Benton” with a bit of social activism attached.

Or, more precisely perhaps, a supercharged version of Corporal Megan Leavey’s titanic struggle with US military bureaucracy, played out on Fox Television and the social media, to rescue her dog Sergeant Rex from undeserved euthanasia. Like Russell, Leavey has managed to activate her campaign “offline” by winning support from useful celebrities and important people on Capitol Hill. Nothing new in that. It’s simply the scale of her achievement, leveraged by social media, that surprises.

That’s not to belittle Russell’s own coup de theâtre, merely to put it into context. Kony 2012 does provide considerable inspiration for a certain kind of marketer – the cause-related one, typically a charity such as Amnesty International or Oxfam. But its relevance to the brand manager’s marcoms arsenal is strictly limited: to PR, and in particular, “advocacy”.

It’s very easy to see why. Brands are never likely to excite, of themselves, the emotional engagement that permeates Kony 2012. And, if they were ever to attach themselves, except ever so marginally, to such a political hot-potato, it would surely spell unwelcome controversy.

Controversy there has certainly been with Kony 2012. A searing media searchlight has scoured Russell’s Invisible Children charity after allegations of fund mismanagement came to light (one of the the things that seems to have driven him into “temporary psychosis”). And the prime minister of Uganda has – via YouTube – personally called Russell to account over an erroneous factual narrative – which, he claims, has done great damage to the Ugandan tourist industry. If this is not “ambush marketing”, I don’t know what is:

Brands are not there to grandstand and take sides: they are there to serve their customers.


One Response to Kony 2012: Is there a marketing angle? No

  1. This is indeed a quite strange campaign to sort out. But to your point, as one tries to figure out the professional background of its producers, we may think of the new branding philosophies being proposed by some big agencies, such as Leo Burnett’s HumanKind: it is all about “engaging” “empowered” consumers (or, let’s say, “people”) in highly “inspirational” ways and towards maximum “populism”. Think that the most exemplary HumanKind campaign was WWF Earth Hour, and we may see some things in common…

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