Jenara Nerenberg

What’s MTV got to do with it? Mainstream Media and International Development

News stories have been popping up lately about supermodels, actors, musicians and their pet causes. In graduate school I was focused sharply on the intersection of mainstream media and cause marketing, also known as “cause branding,” and while I have a passion for these topics, I wanted to see how our NextBillion readers feel about celebrity spokespersons, big ad campaigns, and the like. Do you approve?

There’s a recent piece in Vogue that profiles supermodel Christy Turlington and her passionate crusade for mothers in developing countries; she’s doing a Master of Public Health at Columbia University. Then there’s a recent piece I found on a stellar blog, Bella Naija, that poses the question, What do images of Naomi Campbell and wild animals do for the continent of Africa? Do they reinforce a message and image that is harming Africa and hindering its development?

Of course there is also Dambisa Moyo’s persistent critique of aid, Bono, and the RED campaign, arguing that such efforts hurt Africa more than they help it.

Bill Easterly of Aid Watch at NYU recently wrote a blog post on why he thinks such campaigns are created in the first place; he argues they are created by and target middle-aged white men. I disagree and posted feedback there, but it’s an interesting argument nonetheless.

So amidst the criticism, the well-done campaigns, and the not so well-done campaigns, what purpose do these campaigns serve?

This month, MTV’s EXIT Campaign (End Exploitation and Trafficking) will launch here in Nepal with free concerts throughout the country to raise awareness about how to protect oneself from becoming a victim of human trafficking. Nepal, along with other MTV EXIT participating countries, the Philippines and Thailand, have long-standing human trafficking challenges. Partnerships between models, actors, big brands, and more through “social marketing” raise awareness, raise funds, change behavior, and get healthy products such as bed nets and condoms into the hands of millions.

But what do you think? Does having Angelina Jolie or Turlington’s face plastered across a billboard or magazine cause people to perhaps disengage and not take the very stark reality of the lives of those at the BOP seriously? Should we take donor dollars and raise awareness at any cost? Will MTV campaigns have lasting value and impact for the BOP or are they merely corporate reputation boosts?

I like to imagine what the world would look like if mainstream media, celebrities, and cause campaigns didn’t meet. No movies covering important issues like Jeff Skoll’s Participant Productions does in movies like Syriana, The Soloist, Darfur Now, and An Inconvenient Truth. Teenage girls in the West not exposed to the threats of violence and HIV for their counterparts in developing countries. Future aid workers and Peace Corps Volunteers not given images to inspire them in their early college days.

My assertion here builds on an earlier post about what inspires us to give. Exposing the masses to BOP issues through mainstream media is using one more channel and giving people one more chance to encounter a possible inspiration or spark of awakening that can lead to real change for the BOP, whether through an investment, microloans, donations, a career change, declaring a major, or other life-changing event. As I recently read in a favorite book of mine, Ladies Who Launch, “Accessing images and dreams has a strong impact on our lives and leads us toward that creative spark, inspiration, and vision where we begin to create.” Change has to start somewhere, so why not through mass media?