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The Children's Villages in Santo, near Port-au-Prince and Cap Haitien are home to children from Haiti who face some of the poorest conditions in the world. SOS Children's Villages has been working here since 1982 and has also provided aid during natural disasters occurring in Haiti … more about our charity work in Haiti

Can charity ads go too far?

Can charity ads go too far?
“Can charity ads go too far?”

Hannah Edwards, Press Officer, SOS Children UK


A new charity advertising campaign is provoking debate. With its ‘Hashtag Killer’ campaign, Water Is Life uses the kind of things which Westerners complain and tweet about, such as having a house which needs two wireless routers or being given a meal with pickles when you’ve asked for one without.

To emphasise the irony of such grumbles, when so many across the world have so little, these complaints are put into the mouths of people in Haiti – to watch the campaign’s video, see: http://www.waterislife.com/media/videos/

Haitians are filmed in various stark settings as they voice a variety of such #firstworldproblems. A girl stands in front of a decrepit bus and says “I hate when my phone charger won’t reach my bed”. A boy is shown sitting on a pile of rubble saying how he hates it “when my leather seats aren’t heated”. Another young girl stands in front of women cleaning clothes in a river while she talks about the annoyance of leaving “clothes in the washer so long, they start to smell”.

The campaign has won praise for its boldness from some quarters. While irony has been deployed in other kinds of advertising, it’s rare to see such an approach used in the charity sector. Certainly the adverts succeed in making the viewer think about the more vital issues facing those in developing countries, such as a lack of clean water.

However, some commentators feel uneasy about how local Haitians have been used in the campaign, especially since (according to an article in the Guardian) some of the youngsters in the video are from an orphanage and it’s not clear they all fully understand what they’re saying. One older woman looks particularly unhappy after giving her line; she may simply be disgusted at having to relay such a trivial first world problem or it could be from discomfort at being filmed. The advert has also been criticized for presenting an oversimplification of what life is like in Haiti and of the people there. Some observers therefore feel it’s more likely to inspire pity than empathy.

To avoid this trap, many charities prefer to emphasize the similarities between people in developing countries and those in the West. For example, when it comes to technology, in many developing countries (such as Kenya) mobile phone usage is extremely high and people experience the same kind of annoyance at the chore of having to charge their phones. Even in the poorest societies, life can be as complex and irritating as it is in the West, sometimes for the same and sometimes for different reasons.

But as one saying goes, ‘all PR is good PR’. Therefore the discussion surrounding the new Water Is Life adverts is welcome for the charity and the sector as a whole, if this very unusual campaign helps to raise the profile of vital development work.

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SOS Children builds medical centres in areas where needed and help thousands of people in need worldwide get healthcare.