MSF video: An ad too far?

The UK branch of MSF - Doctors without Borders - launched a new advertisement campaign in the movie theaters. On their website, they asked for feedback, claiming "It is our attempt to make a deliberate move away from some traditional charity advertising which can tend to focus on images of starving children."

The video stirred up quite a bit of noise on the "aid watch dog" blogs: Aid Watch and Aid Thoughts. Also the esteemed Philantrophy gave a pitch (Update: see further below for the other "usual suspects" joining in ;-) ). While the commentary has now been disabled on the MSF website (I wonder why, Mr and Mrs MSF, as you "would really appreciate your feedback on the ad." - Update: this is incorrect.. apparently there were never any comments possible on the MSF website.. Confusing.. - see updates below and Marc's comments), the discussion continues on Osocio. The MSF web editor also joined the discussion on DuckRabbit...

By coincidence, just a few days ago, I published a post about an effective UNICEF ad campaign, and praised MSF for their simplicity of this ad. As usual, BBC picked up on the trend we set on The Road (eh), and published a whole picture series about "Branding" humanitarian aid.

So, the discussion of publicity around humanitarian aid is on... Let's have a look at this (in)famous MSF video then:

My train of thoughts were (in sequence):

  • clearly studio work mixing a faked video image with the sound of a child crying and artificial gunfire. Update: a friend of a friend ran the audio of the video through a sound analyser. The cries of the child were cut and remixed. Obvious for the maximum effect. The sound of the guns was mixed on top of it. Need I to say more?
  • Then I saw the comments of the MSF web editor saying the child cries were real.
  • I read the rest of the comments, where it was clear that it was unclear: no answer if the stuff was all cut and mixed by an over-eager "UK's leading advertising agencies, McCann Erickson" (dixit MSF UK). How much was faked, and how much was for real? No answer from MSF, to me, means, bad news: faked.
  • I thought.. well, if an ad stirs up that much noise, it must be an effective ad...
  • Soon after that, the thought: "Hmmm, nope.. That is not right" in how far does it differ from the cheap pictures of starving children, so often featured in ad campaigns?
  • then again I thought back on what MSF UK said on their website: "It is our attempt to make a deliberate move away from some traditional charity advertising which can tend to focus on images of starving children.".. Beh.. clearly worked: they moved away from the images of starving children! They broadcasted the sound of a starving child. Cheap.
  • Then my ethics started to work... What if it was my child being recorded while in real pain, and mounted in a faked video, shown to millions? No matter for what reason, humanitarian or not. I would not take it that my child's misery is commercialized, publicized, vulgarized. So why would I accept someone else's child is?
My verdict: MSF: you went an ad too far. Realism is one thing. Faking circumstances just for the effect to shock, is another. And publicly claiming "the child's cries are real, but I don't see what the point is", clearly shows you guys indeed have no freaking clue what the point is. Which makes me then think: who are these people who claim to be humanitarians if they don't see the human aspect of it all?

My verdict: humanitarian ad trash.


Update 1:
Aidworkers joining the discussion: Aidworker Daily and Martyns in Africa, In Development, Humanitarian Relief.

Update 2:
I wrote to Marc Dubois, Executive Director MSF UK this morning:

As an aidworker, as a humanitarian, and as a human being, I deplore MSF UK's poor judgement and even worse, poor taste in a airing a clearly faked and sensationalistic video "The Boy".

I regret even more MSF's handling of the communications around this video:
- putting it on your website as "our attempt to make a deliberate move away from some traditional charity advertising which can tend to focus on images of starving children."..
Well, you did better than showing images of starving children. You aired the sound of it.
- Asking for feedback and then disabling comments (and deleting them) from your website
- Half-assed "I don't speak on behalf of MSF" of your web editor on different blogs, with a clear poor judgement in responses, and not seeing "the point".

What will be next? Will you broadcast live the image of a child dying? "MSF-Aid-Cam: See Children Die Unless You Donate Now"

Poor quality, poor judgement of an organisation who was judged by many to be 'different'... And up and above, I take offense of the hypocrisy of your communications. Don't ask for feedback unless if you want it. Don't claim to be un-sensational if you are.

I welcome your response which will be published on the web via



Update 3:
I got some offline comments via Email questioning if I was not too hard on the MSF webeditor, who clearly stated to 'act on his own behalf, and not representing MSF' on different blogs...
My answer: I don't want to target anyone in particular and certainly not personally. However, I think it is a bit of poor judgement if someone enters a discussion clearly stating they work for the organisation, and expecting not to be seen as "representing that organisation" as such... If I am in the field, wearing a Tshirt of an organisation, and speak to the press, I can expect the 'general public' to link my comments to my organisation...
I also want, from my personal perspective, add that sometimes, as aidworkers, we are in a bit of a bind as to up to where we are representing (and are loyal to) ourselves, our values, our beliefs and up to what point the organisation's. Up to what point we should speak up or be quiet if we don't agree. Certainly if there is a situation which is not right, or goes against our convictions... A particularly tricky point if it involves media or any other public means of communicating.

Update 4:
Quite a bit of offline comments going around via Email. A correction/adjustment is in place: Apparently there were never comments enabled on the MSF UK webpage with the video. Even though the blog on which MSF asks to leave comments says: "You can give your comment here on Osocio or on this page at the MSF website." Beh...
It seems originally MSF requested for feedback by Email to their head of communications directly, but the pure volume of response was too high. See also the comments on this blog.
Anyways, if you want to call or email anyone at MSF UK, you can find all their details here.
But let's not diverge from the main topic of the discussion: "Did this ad go too far or not?"

Update 5:
Paul and Amanda @feucontinu, Transitionland and Stop Genocide also joined the discussion on their blogs.


Michael Keizer 01 September, 2009 01:10  

For me, the issue is not only in the ad but also in the way MSF UK mishandled its communications around the add (”metacommunications”, if guess). Their website manager’s appearance (and subsequent disappearance) under the guise of only representing his personal opinion and not MSF’s might or might not be true, but it reflects extremely negatively on our credibility next time we try to do advocacy. I tried to broach this subject on Duckrabbit, but only received abuse from the blog manager(s) — being called “patronizing”, “petty”, and “a piece of work”. That, of course, will do a lot of good, too (irony intended).

Pete Masters 01 September, 2009 16:40  

On update 3, I just want to say that I have not found the comments made too hard. As I responded to Michael above (on another blog - ), I take these criticisms as constructive - as I am sure they are meant.

It is a difficult balance.

I stated that the opinions were my own because I do not speak for MSF on this ad. I didn't create it, nor have anything to do with it's planning. What I didn't want to do was join the debate without saying who I worked for - that, I think, would have been disingenuous. However, this debate has given me food for thought on a whole number of things. I am not 'in it to win it' - that is not the point - what I (and I think MSF) take from it will be far more valuable.

Pete Masters

Marc DuBois 03 September, 2009 09:17  

Dear Peter,

Thanks for your email inviting me to join the discussion about the web ad. You have voiced a strong and sharply worded opinion. I can't say I agree with your conclusions, but can understand where they came from. The ad is undoubtedly provocative, and seems to raise a wide array of questions and viewpoints. I've been impressed by the weeks of commentary on blogsites such as osocio and duckrabbit. Some people think the ad is brilliant. Others, such as yourself, find it manipulative and hypocritical. You may find it unsurprising that my sentiments more closely resemble the former.

Regarding the ad, I have made a post under my name on the osocio website ( ), where this discussion has been going on for several weeks. Hopefully, it contributes to the discussion around questions you and others have raised.

Also, one thing you claim is that we dismantled the feedback mechanism on our website. I see you have added an update to your original blog post, but on this I need to be really clear. Our website doesn't have the functionality to receive comments so initially the head of communications put her direct email address. However we misjudged the number of emails she would receive and have to reply to personally, so instead we changed to asking people to leave their comments on one of the blog sites instead. Naivete about the possibilities of Web2.0? Maybe. Whatever the case, we should not have created the impression that we were trying to close off discussion. On the contrary, this discussion has been invaluable given that we are in uncharted waters for MSF. So we should have explained that we are still very interested in receiving comments, that we do listen to them, but that we can't respond to them individually. That has been corrected.

Keep up the good work -- I was unfamiliar with your site but have now bookmarked it for those five days a year when I manage to indulge my intellectual curiosity about aid, rather than simply working in the middle of it..

Marc DuBois
Executive Director, MSF-UK

Peter 03 September, 2009 18:11  

Pete and Marc,
thank you both for taking the time to respond.

It is clear that people's perception and experience from the same ad are different. Probably based on their experience, their values,...

On the confusion about whether MSF disabled comments or not: I take it this was a mistake indeed probably caused by the initial wording of the text on the MSF UK website, plus the fact that the Osocio blog invited to also comment on the MSF UK website...
I apologize having miss-understood.

For the rest, my opinion stands.



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