Striking Back: Activists Go
By Jonah Sachs
Diamonds for Amnesty International
In the spring of 2001, Amnesty International set aside
a few thousand dollars to take on the entire diamond industry. Thats
about the cost of one small diamond, so the industry didnt feel
terribly threatened by the prospect of the upcoming campaign. Then they
saw what a few thousand dollars can produce today. And so did more than
a hundred thousand potential diamond buyers.
The campaign set out to alert the world to the dirty practices of diamond
mining in Africa. Many of the diamonds that wind up on American engagement
rings are pulled from the earth in Sierra Leone, home of a brutal gang
of rebels known as the Revolutionary United Front (RUF), which has been
waging a civil war for years to gain control of the country. The dirtiness
of the diamonds is somewhat cyclical: the RUF wants arms to continue
the war; they sell diamonds to purchase the weapons; to get the diamonds,
they enslave fellow countrymen to mine them. Their trademark is to butcher
people by hacking off their limbs. If the diamond industry did not buy
these jewels, the RUF wouldnt be able to purchase the weapons
that fuel their war. If people demanded cruelty-free diamonds, the industry
The campaigners believed that if people knew how much cruelty was caused
by the purchase of their beloved jewels, momentum could be built for
a Clean Diamonds Act requiring that all diamonds be certified
and ensuring that their sources were legitimate. The diamond industry
said it would support such a step, but at the time of the campaign launch,
in the fall of 2001, billions of dollars of illegal diamonds still continued
to flow into the U.S.
Traditional awareness-raising methods, like direct mail, wouldnt
have given the campaign the massive exposure it needed. So the organizers
decided to try something new. Partnering with Free Range Graphics, a
progressive design firm in Washington, DC, Amnesty produced a short,
animated Internet video. It was a spoof on the well-known diamond commercial
depicting an engagement proposal, featuring two shadow hands with dramatic
classical string music blaring in the background.
A short video viewed easily via the Internet, known as a Flash iMovie,
was created with the recognizable soundtrack and familiar hands. This
time, the womans hand refuses the ring being offered and the viewer
is transported back to where the diamonds had originally come from.
Animated shadows convey the brutality that was a direct consequence
of the diamond mining which would eventually produce the ring.
At the time, these Web cartoons were a relatively untested medium. Everyone
in the business knows that you can expect about a 0.1 percent return
rate on a direct mail campaign; you can expect to spend about $.66 per
response. But Flash iMovies are far less predictable. As it turns out,
that is most often a very good thing.
When an organization creates an iMovie, they begin by distributing it
to an email list, just like direct mailings. The people on the list
receive a message that directs them to a Web site which hosts the video.
These videos use Flash technology, which allows real-time animation
and sound to be streamed easily over the Interneteven over a modem.
At the end of the video, visitors are asked to sign an online petition
and to distribute the Web site to their friends. For many users, this
is their first encounter with Internet movies, which generates considerable
excitement. When people pass on the message, viewership begins to grow
exponentially. The organization then reaches thousands of sympathetic
people previously unknown to them (the most sought after audience).
An initial viewership of 5,000 can turn into 100,000 virtually overnight,
and the movie takes on a life of its own.
Now, Internet marketers have learned something very interesting about
friend-to-friend distribution, known as the viral effect.
It seems that Internet users are happy to pass on entertaining Web items,
but are unwilling to do so if they feel they are advertising to their
friends. This has confounded corporate marketers who wish to sell products
this way. But it has not hampered the efforts of progressive non-profits.
Sure, silly cartoons (like the famous hamster dance) are still more
likely to go viral than something serious like dirty diamonds. But to
the audience non-profits are most trying to reachthose concerned
with social justice, the environment and progressive change, for examplethe
insertion of a message into Web entertainment actually increases the
likelihood that the piece will be passed on. Its not a guaranteed
formula, but it does seem that the right mix of enjoyable, unique content
and strong, simple yet progressive messaging will consistently launch
an iFilm into viral distribution.
So how did the diamond campaign fare? Within the first weekend of the
films launch, 14,000 new people had joined the organizations
mailing list. After a couple of weeks over 50,000 people had taken action.
Still online, the film has been viewed by several hundred thousand people
to date (www.amnestyusa.org/diamonds).
Its success and popularity were so apparent that the organization reinvested
in the project, distributing the movie by CD-ROM to the entire U.S.
Congress. Most importantly, the success of the campaign contributed
to the passage of the Clean Diamonds Act by the House of
Representatives in November 2001.
Remember the estimated cost of $.66 per response for a direct mail campaign?
The diamonds campaign wound up costing about $.01 per response, saving
more than a few small diamonds worth in the process.
Seeing the success of the diamond campaign and other Free Range hitslike
Working Assets Lady Liberty cartoon (all Free Range
Flash films can be seen at www.freerangegraphics.com/html/gallery/flash_movies.html),
which focused on the civil rights curtailments after September 11dozens
of non-profits have approached Free Range looking for similar exposure.
Based on the benefits outlined above, it would seem an obvious choice
for any campaign. In reality, its not. Certain attributes of the
diamond case study typify the right kind of campaign to take advantage
of Flash technology. If you want to work with this medium in your fight
for a more just, sustainable world, consider the following:
Internet Responses are Cheap: In the old days, getting ten thousand
signatures on a petition meant somethingthey were hard to obtain
and thus valuable. But the Internet makes it so easy to take action
that those you target are less likely to take emailed actions seriously.
Impressions are Valuable: On the flip side of the coin, campaigns
that are centered on spreading the word are perfect for iFilms. If youre
organizing a boycott or trying to embarrass a company for lousy practices,
iFilms are an extremely powerful way of packaging a message and making
a deep impression on viewers.
Cartoons are Not Dissertations: iFilms are best for getting the
basics of the situation across to viewers. They work when you introduce
a broad population to something they havent yet heard about. They
dont work when you target a knowledgeable audience with specific,
technical information. That being said, a simple cartoon can lead viewers
to a more in-depth Web site.
iFilms Can Sell an Idea, Not an Organization: As mentioned above,
friends dont advertise to friends, so if youre planning
on touting the merits of your organization, forget about it. If, however,
you are talking about the merits of an argument your organization cares
about, then an iFilm may be perfect.
Jonah Sachs is co-founder of Free Range Graphics, a Washington,
DC-based design firm that aims to assist progressive activists with
advocacy campaigns and outreach. To learn more, visit www.freerangegraphics.com
or call (202) 234-5613.