I have kept a close eye on the USAID FWD campaign. It is a new endeavor for the agency and a promising first step towards using media to engage, inform and education on a specific global issue. The strongest point of the campaign has been the maps. They provide information about the Horn of Africa in an accessible manner. The weakest area of the campaign is the videos.
Hidden behind the glamour of celebrities, they all share one commonality. One person or a group or people are talking at the American public to tell them about the crisis in the Horn of Africa. The faces, settings and words are different but they are all the same. The conversation is one way. Celebrity A tells you that there is a crisis affecting 13 million people across the world and you should 'forward the facts' or even make a text donation because you care.
This is the long existing model of aid communications. Sally Struthers told us about starving children every Sunday and musicians did the same when performing at Live Aid. A quarter of a century later it is the same other than it looks a bit more like the celebrities are right in front of us thanks to 1080p.
FWD is desperately looking for an amp that goes to 11, but is rocking as hard as John Denver. "Take Me Home, Country Roads" is a crowd favorite for people of all ages, but it is not like "Suck My Kiss" Red Hot Chili Peppers. They song and even the music video is in the face of the audience daring them to transcend the song itself and challenge Anthony Kiedis when he sings, "hit me, you can't hurt me." Better yet, RHCP are able to make giving cool (yes, the song is really about altruism) with "Give it Away."
It will take time for USAID, and aid agencies in general, to change their tactics. If the music metaphor is expanded further, we are just at the beginning of Rock n' Roll. Musicians like Chuck Berry gave way for the stadium anthems that are now played by RHCP. On this front it is the early 1950's. Great innovators are doing new things on the edges, but it will take an Elvis, then The Beatles and so on to pull the fringes into the mainstream.