Is a Zombie Video Good for Charity?

Halloween has passed, but zombies are still with us!

While checking my email Inbox recently, one subject line in particular caught my eye:

Zombie overpopulation video for Halloween by Population Matters.”

Halloween season or not, I like zombie films and television shows. For example, my favorite TV show of the moment is iZombie. If you haven’t seen iZombie, don’t judge me; instead, checkout an episode. Then, thank me.

Anyway, I quickly opened the email from a fundraising professional who I respect greatly. Her message piqued my interest even more:

I can’t believe that any communications or development department ok’d this! Horrible.”

Normally, “horrible” might be a good word to describe a zombie video, but that clearly was not the case in this situation. My fellow fundraiser believes that the video is problematic for the charity even if, on a superficial level, it might be mildly entertaining. So, doubly intrigued, I clicked on the link to the video by the UK charity Population Matters. You can watch it here:

On a superficial level, I kind of like the video. It isn’t great, but it is a bit fun while raising awareness about an important issue. I also acknowledge a few key points:

1.  The video is a British production for primarily (though not exclusively) a British audience. The British sense of humor and use of humor is very different from the American. What works in one country might not be appropriate in the other.

2.  Adults are not the primary target audience. The organization says “young people” are. I can understand how a zombie-themed video could capture the attention of the intended target audience.

3.  The video is bound to attract plenty of eyeballs that will achieve the objective of creating awareness for the issue of over population.

It was not until I thought about the video more deeply, viewed it again, and discussed it with colleagues that I began to see the problems with it.

Racism. At worst, the video is seen by some as racist. At best, it’s considered racially insensitive. The problem is that when mentioning the explosive population growth, only children of color are shown. No white babies or children are shown to illustrate the growth in population. Here’s what one colleague at an international social-service agency had to say about the video:

From our perspective, when people talk about overpopulation, they are often referring to black/brown folks in the global south and Africa. There can be a strong undercurrent of racism there, so connecting ‘too many black and brown people’ with zombies has an extremely negative connotation. In the human rights world, this kind of video is considered to be pretty racist. It got a uniformly negative response from the folks here in our office. So, even if millennials would like it, it’s very much out of step with the way family planning/population issues are framed in the human rights world, and makes it harder for groups like ours to even approach the overpopulation issue without being called racist.”

Overwhelming Use of Statistics. The video provided a number of interesting statistics. The trouble is, the use of statistics was overwhelming and abstract. As a result, even after watching the video three times, I cannot remember a single statistic cited. I suspect casual viewers will experience the same thing.

No Emotional Pull. While the video is somewhat fun, it lacks emotional pull. Greg Warner, of MarketSmart, pointed that out to me along with the next two points.

So What? This is one of my favorite questions when evaluating something. As Greg told me, “There’s nothing to answer the question any individual would ask while viewing it: ‘What’s in it for me?’” Yes, the video attempts to point out how the world and our species would be better off by reducing population growth. However, those “benefits” are abstract, particularly to young people who have some sense of immortality and narcissism.

Weak Call to Action. There are two calls to action in the video. Neither is compelling. First, viewers are encouraged to have smaller families. This is not immediately relevant to the target audience of teenagers. The second call to action is to go to the organization’s website for more information. As Greg mentioned to me, “[The call to action] is not all that exciting.”

Given my own thoughts about the video and the comments I received, I had questions about the production. So, I emailed Population Matters. I received a quick response from Simon Ross, the organization’s Chief Executive:

Was the video tested with focus groups prior to its release? Focus Group studies are a great way to gauge the thoughts of a particular audience. Population Matters could have determined how its target audience would react to the video, what they like about it, and what they didn’t.

​The video has been produced with the goal of communicating with teenagers, primarily in educational settings. We did obtain feedback using individual questionnaires on the video with this target group. We did not use focus groups, which is an expensive technique.”

What is the charity’s definition of success for the video? If a charity is going to invest in the production and distribution of a video, it should have a clear objective in mind.

​We hope that it will be shown widely in UK schools and shared by young people on social media. We hope that viewers will understand the message that smaller families are key to a sustainable future.”

Unfortunately, it’s unclear how Population Matters will actually evaluate whether or not its objective has been achieved. Furthermore, the organization appears not to be particularly interested in expanding its mailing or social media lists, nor does it appear interested in using the video to raise money. While creating awareness is a reasonable goal, the video could have done more. To achieve more, however, it would need to be more engaging and compelling on an individual level.

Some critics feel that the video is either racist or racially insensitive because it only shows brown children when discussing over-population. Comment? While trying to be dramatic, the video might have intentionally or unintentionally been offensive.

​It mainly shows zombies. Children from countries in the global south are shown when discussing the current ​global birth rate because that is where the highest birth rates are. The video is thus seeking to reflect reality, as all good reporting should. Moreover, this was a tiny sequence in a short video; a comprehensive global overview was not possible.”

So, what do you think of the zombie video, recognizing that you may not be the primary target audience? Vote in the poll:

Here are some key questions to ask yourself when producing a video for your nonprofit organization:

What is your objective? Recognize that a video can have multiple objectives though it should remain focused.

Is it meaningful? The video should touch the viewer’s emotions and demonstrate how the issue is personally relevant.

How will the target audience react? Before distributing a video, it’s a good idea to determine if it will generate the desired response and reflect well on your organization and mission. If it doesn’t, it will be easier to fix before, rather than after, the video is broadly released. By the way, be sensitive to potential collateral damage; people other than the intended audience will also be seeing the video. In addition, remember that it’s not about what you intended the message to be, it’s about the message viewers experience. If you can’t afford to conduct focus groups, you can at least invite feedback from a reasonable sampling of outside friends, colleagues and, if your target audience, their teens.

What is the call to action? A compelling call to action will make sure the organization receives the maximum benefit from its video investment. This might involve encouraging viewers to request a booklet, future videos, other giveaways, etc. It might involve encouraging viewers to share the video with friends. The video could also encourage viewers to donate. Think of the Ice Bucket Challenge and how people shared videos of themselves and also donated money to the ALS Foundation.

How will you evaluate whether the video was successful? Before embarking on a video project, it’s important to know how you will define success and how you will define and measure appropriate indicators. By evaluating the performance of a video, you’ll know whether it was a worthwhile project and whether it would be a wise use of limited resources to repeat.

What other questions do you think fundraising and communications professionals should ask themselves about a video project before embarking on one?

That’s what Michael Rosen says… What do you say?

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2 Comments to “Is a Zombie Video Good for Charity?”

  1. Thanks for raising this, Michael. As a Brit, albeit one in his 30s, I do feel that this video is in bad taste. I doubt teenagers would find this any less so. A bad analogy for our over-population woes and, as you say, a weak call to action. It’s a shame as this is a big issue and one that I have a personal interest in. Hopefully, your article will help to inform future campaigns. I, too, like zombie movies but perhaps a video with a constructive message would be more helpful.

    • Samuel, thank you for sharing your thoughts. When preparing a video for a charity, or really any organization, there are several challenges including: 1) You need to be compelling to attract viewers. 2) You need to be engaging so that viewers will watch the entire video. 3) You need to be creative to ensure that your key points are understood by viewers. 4) You need to present the information in such a fashion that viewers will remember the key points. 5) You need to have a compelling call to action to move people. So, I feel for Population Matters. And I applaud their creativity. Unfortunately, like you, I’m not convinced the organization successfully met all of the challenges.

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