Can marketing equality create equality?

Campaigns for development cooperation are a contradictory brand of communication: the goal is to reduce inequality with marketing, but the means of doing it can set against of its own purpose. The campaigns fund work that aims at deconstructing global unbalanced structures of power. At the same time the means of marketing which are used in the campaigns might reinforce these structures.

Text and photos: Marianna Tuokkola

Global inequality is essentially connected into how asymmetrical power relations still exist persistently between the so called Global North and the Global South. Development cooperation and the campaigning for its funding strive for a more equal world and thus for overcoming these structures.  At the same time the campaigns can easily use such means of communication and marketing that might paradoxically strengthen the old power relations. Even though these relations would not actualize in the real world, the visions the campaigns offer can affect how the citizens of the North perceive the people on the other side, or how they think about development cooperation.

The power of communication lies in its ability to create visions. With various verbal and visual means, the campaigns can create different representations of their characters: who are given a voice and power, and what kind of roles are offered. Relevant is how so called beneficiaries, the local people are represented: as rather actors or victims. Essential is also how much power and what sort of agency are given to the audience and the organization.

At least the Finnish development cooperation communication has come a long way from the times when the beneficiaries, targets of the work, were represented as powerless victims in need of pity and help. Also the imagery of the so called second wave with its smiling and happy brown kids is not the top trend anymore. Now campaigns are featuring those who actually do the work in the target country: the local partners are given a voice.

The power is not intertwined only in how the locals are represented in the campaigns; the way audience is being addressed also plays an important role. With different visions, the campaigns can offer various roles for the members of the audience in the development cooperation projects. The donator is above all a financial supporter of the work, but they can be also one of the workers, a change maker, a benefactor, a savior, consumer or a clicktivist. It is challenging to market development cooperation without persuading the audience by creating a feeling of how they have to power to make a difference – preferably as quickly and easily as possible.

A development cooperation campaign does not only tell about the work that the organization does but also constructs its identity. In here too, it is not whatever how organizations represent themselves and their work. Along with highlighting the local workers also the organizations’ self-representations have changed a little: the organization might represent itself as the supporter of the local work, not its main executor. Obviously the organization cannot fade itself out from the campaign because the campaign and also the work in that form would not exist without the organization. Yet the visions about the western organizations who just go to the third world countries to put things in order with their own conditions stick to some extent.  

Campaigning for development cooperation is a tricky field since it needs to play by the rules of market economy. The most efficient ways of marketing in regards of development cooperation are not always those means that create visions who support equality. Possible donators must be persuaded in order to get money for the work. It is understandable that sometimes the end justifies the means.

We can never get rid of power structures but they can be affected, also on the level of communication and visions. The development cooperation campaigns are no longer creating an image of the western strong helpers who save the poor in the developing countries. However, in marketing the audience must be prioritized so that the donations keep on coming. If development cooperation was not so dependent on the people’s will to donate, the development cooperation communication and the visions it is creating might be quite different.

The author is writing a Master’s Thesis about two Finnish development cooperation campaigns and their representations of actors, audience and organization.


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