Kony 2012 holds lessons for internet advocacy but not the more mundane business of brands

The marketing and media trade publications are still full of it. Kony 2012: the marketing angle. Apparently, the 30-minute video viral, which has now attracted over 85 million viewers on YouTube, is replete with key ‘learnings’ for anyone working in the marcoms biz.

Just what these lessons are eludes me. To be sure, the exposé of child murderer, rapist and serial sadist Joseph Kony is a story compellingly told, which probably accounts for its success in holding the butterfly attention of the social media generation for a full half an hour, rather than the conventional two minutes maximum prescribed by digital lore.

But to infer from this that amateur film-maker and social activist Jason Russell (pictured) has distilled an alchemistic formula that can be meaningfully applied to brands and brand management is, frankly, ludicrous.

If there is a universal truth behind this amazingly successful video viral, it is a truth first coined by Andy Warhol: “In the future, everyone will be world famous for 15 minutes.”

Sadly, that 15 minutes of fame has been visited upon Russell, and he has paid the price in inexpungeable personal humiliation and a nervous breakdown that has landed him in hospital, probably for months. Most of us, like Russell, are not very good at handling fame when it comes knocking at the door.

Personal misfortune aside, is there anything else to be learned from Kony 2012? Surely, the cynic will say, it is no more than an amplified version of YouTube pooch Fenton/Benton with a bit of social activism attached.

Or, more precisely perhaps, a supercharged version of Corporal Megan Leavey’s titanic struggle with US military bureaucracy, played out on Fox Television and the social media, to rescue her dog Sergeant Rex from undeserved euthanasia. Like Russell, Leavey has managed to activate her campaign ‘offline’ by winning support from useful celebrities and important people on Capitol Hill. Nothing new in that. It just the scale of her achievement, magnified by social media leverage, that surprises.

That’s not to belittle Russell’s considerable achievement, merely to put it into context. Kony 2012 does provide considerable inspiration for a certain kind of marketer – the cause-related one, typically a charity such as Amnesty International or Oxfam. But it’s relevance to the brand manager’s marcoms arsenal is strictly limited: to PR, and in particular, ‘advocacy.’

It’s very easy to see why. Brands are never likely to excite, of themselves, the emotional engagement that permeates Kony 2012. And, if they were ever to attach themselves, except ever so marginally, to such a political hot-potato, it would surely spell unwelcome controversy.

Controversy there has certainly been with Kony 2012. A searing media searchlight has scoured Russell’s Invisible Children charity after allegations of fund mismanagement came to light (one of the the things that seems to have driven him into ‘temporary psychosis’). And the prime minister of Uganda has – via YouTube – personally called him to account over an erroneous factual narrative – which, he claims, has done great damage to the Ugandan tourist industry.

If this is not ‘ambush marketing,’ I don’t know what is.

Brands are not there to grandstand and take sides: they are there to serve their customers.

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About Stuart Smith

Stuart Smith is one of the most incisive and knowledgeable commentators on global marketing. He was a long-time editor of Marketing Week during the period when it was the UK's leading marketing, media and advertising specialist publication. Visit Stuart Smith Blog.