Is Laughter Really The Best Medicine?

This week Al Jazeera America posted a very interesting opinion piece by Sindre Olav Edland-Gryt, defending the use of satire in content marketing for their aid organization, SAIH. It is not surprising that their videos have generated a lot of traffic, and a lot of media coverage.  Nor is it surprising that some have taken offense to the tone of the content.

Take a few minutes to check out their short mockumenary, Let’s Save Africa – Gone Wrong, the Africa for Norway Radiator Appeal and Charity Single.  It’s easy to laugh.  SAIH’s mission is to liberate through education and expand political consciousness, and their ultimate message is clear:

Stereotypes harm dignity

SAIH are adding to a growing amount of satirical content on the topic of aid, particularly Western organizations in Africa. Opinions are divided on the appropriateness of satire in this arena.  It raises the question: are we dumbing down the issues for a fickle online audience, or is this a reaction to the years of cliched campaigns that have come before?

The issue resonated with me, as I faced my own quandary earlier this year when I volunteered with Habitat for Humanity’s Global Village program.  The prospect of a 7-day adventure in Guatemala, helping to build houses, was for me the trip of a lifetime.  But I really wanted to downplay any delusions of grandeur. Most of all, I was skeptical of how much help we could really be.

But after a week spent doing some very hard work, alongside the benefiting families, skilled local masons, incredible Habitat for Humanity teams and my fellow volunteers from all walks of life, my perspective changed. I was proud that our work was as much about hauling bricks and shifting sand, as it was in sharing our story within our own communities, thereby doing authentic PR for the charity and hopefully encouraging more to donate and participate on a local and international level.

Habitat volunteers in action

Several weeks later as I was looking through all our photos on Facebook, I cracked up when I saw this Onion article titled 6-Day Visit To Rural African Village Completely Changes Woman’s Facebook Profile Picture.  It was funny because it was true, and while I had come full circle with my own experience, I was still very aware of how it looked on the surface.

Edland-Gryt says in his article that ‘laughter has the power to punctuate the savior mentality and crate new approaches to conversation about development”.  Certainly, if similar content is being put out there, perhaps it is opportune that charities fit themselves into this conversation.  And if humor is cutting through our growing apathy, can capture readers attention and encourage sharing by connecting to our emotions, it must be a good thing right?

However, I do feel that organizations in the know have an obligation to set the record straight. To do this they need to make sure that their message and call to action is one that benefits the causes, rather than shooting themselves in the foot.

Within the comments to the opinion piece, Chris Dunford, former president of Freedom from Hunger, warns that the proliferation of this content risks both the good and the not-so-good aid organizations being tarnished with the same brush.  The greatest risk for charities is that ridicule will cause donors to reconsider their vital funding.

What is clear, is that satire is very tricky to get right, and opens itself up to misinterpretation.  As a marketeer, I am more concerned that the content is reaching the right audience and justifying ROI with results.  If budgets are being put to creating content marketing, is this at the expense of other fundraising programs?  NGO’s have very limited resources, and face higher scrutiny on spending than most corporations.  They therefore have to be extremely clever in how they best use the power of the internet for the good of their causes.