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20 Reasons Why KONY 2012 is the Most Viral Advocacy Video Ever

By Amy Marquis and Tucker Walsh

80 million views on YouTube. 17 million views on Vimeo. Coverage in the New York Times, Washington Post, on major cable news networks and The Daily Show. Backing from superstars like George Clooney, Shepard Fairey, Oprah Winfrey, and Rhianna.

No matter what the critics say about KONY 2012-- a powerful new campaign making its debut with a 30-minute film-- there's no denying that Invisible Children has created the most viral advocacy video ever. It's a stunning example of the power of video to amplify a nonprofit's message.

Still, it took me a couple weeks to reflect on this video (and all the heated debates it generated) before I knew what I wanted this post to look like. I had negative reactions to the way the filmmaker handled parts of this story, and it took me some time to distance myself from those feelings and recognize that, good or bad, we advocacy video storytellers have a ton to learn from this film. And it's TDN's responsibility to help shed an objective light on those lessons.

If you're anticipating a post that reveals some magical formula for viral success, you might be disappointed. What we can offer are 20 key ingredients that contributed to the explosion of KONY 2012 (BIG THANKS to Assistant Editor Tucker Walsh for generating the majority of this list!), as well as a closer look at the consequences of some of the decisions made in this film. In the end, though, it's up to you to draw your own conclusion: Is this really the best advocacy video ever?


1. High production value. Fantastic use of After Effects; low-quality photos and video footage made attractive through slick editing techniques; cool graphic integration of Facebook and other social media "in action."

2. An intro that demands your attention. A minute-and-a-half in, filmmaker Jason Russell halts audiences with this line: "The next 27 minutes are an experiment, but in order for it to work, you have to pay attention." Riveting, right? How can you NOT keep watching? Great example of stirring curiosity in viewers (read more about the science behind this here).

3. An emotional journey. The film tugs at every emotion possible: anger, empowerment, humor, inspiration, sadness, etc-- and it balances all those emotions well, too. Feels slightly manipulative, but in a good way, as if filmmakers market-tested the video to make sure every single line did what it was designed to do.

4. Massages the viewer's ego. The first few minutes of the video are all about how the younger "social media" generation is so amazing and able to accomplish the most incredible things. This comes way before any "ask." It also makes the viewer feel good about him/herself, implanting the thought that "By doing very little, I can help accomplish something very big."

5. A generational initiative. Young people leading the cause is always "cool" and more likely to catch on. Also, the video is based around Jacob, a Ugandan teenager who appeals to the video's audience-- Western teenagers. Teens helping teens makes the cause a generational issue, not a race/religion/nationality issue.

6. A clear path. The video sets up the solution before it delivers the issue-- a tactic that has serious sway, according to the book Switch: How to Change Things When Change is Hard.

7. Firm, simple, achievable goals. Step 1: Raise awareness about Kony. Step 2: Arrest Kony.

8. Deadline driven. Literally sets an expiration date for the film, creating a sense of urgency and encouraging a more immediate response.

9. Simple, focused messaging. Takes a highly complex issue and makes it so easy to chew that a 5 year old can understand it. Literally. Side note: Something we're often taught in video storytelling is that the best way to communicate a message is to pretend like your describing it to a child. These guys literally did that-- kind of brilliant, but not without controversy-- see links below.

10. A well-timed release. With school still in session, clubs, chapters, and organizations can form on campuses, and the video can spread easily through word of mouth in the lunchroom/classroom. March is also a time of year when people are motivated to accomplish big things-- the long winter is over, spring is in the air, and people are eager to get out and do something. Lastly, the economy is on the rise in the U.S.; if they'd released this video during a downturn, it might not have gotten nearly as much play.

11. Scheduled revival. A planned event on April 20th guarantees the video will be in news cycle twice-- both on release of the film and on 4/20. So just as the image of Kony starts to fade, it will be back in a big way one month later. Also, blanketing the streets with posters during the middle of the night sounds like a blast-- way to make activism edgy and badass and borderline illegal-- teenagers love that shit. Better yet, Russell wasn't afraid to advertise this whole-heartedly in the video, rather than releasing a separate video or announcing this event after the Kony campaign was launched.

12. Plenty of legwork. Invisible Children makes hard work (signing pledges, buying a kit, sharing the video) easy, thanks to a catchy website that features pre-written letters to Members of Congress, social media buttons, etc.

13. User-friendly tools. The Action Kit makes advocacy fun, simple, and rewarding (hey, I'll get a gift in the mail and help arrest a warlord-- cool!). T-shirts and posters are hip, well designed, and just cheap enough for anyone to afford.

14. Good vs. Evil. The video simplifies a complicated issue to good vs. evil, one of the most common and popular storytelling formats. Side note: Some would disagree that this is a good thing-- watch a TED video about the danger of over-simplifying stories here, and check out other links on this point below.

15. Turns a depressing subject on its head. The film takes an extremely depressing topic and makes it entertaining and watchable. If you've seen the film War Dance, you'll know that KONY 2012 glosses over the graphic and heinous things these children were forced to experience (like watching their parents' heads boil in a pot). It could have been a million times more graphic and disturbing, but instead Russell chose to use PG-13 language. As a result, the viewer "gets it" without having to be traumatized.

16. Creates a brand. SUPER valuable point-- the film turns a complicated issue into a brand: KONY 2012. Brands are easy to sell, share, spread, fall in love with, etc. And it's even more genius to turn a nonprofit campaign into a brand, then create a movement that represents the interests of that brand. Branding is CRUCIAL to why KONY 2012 was so successful.

17. Establishes credibility. Halfway through the video, the filmmaker begins ticking off dozens of Invisible Children's victories from the last decade, including Barack Obama's decision in 2008 to deploy U.S. forces to help remove Joseph Kony. This allows the viewer to place more trust in IC and adds to the "feel good" aspect of the video. Side note: Interestingly enough, the nonprofit had to work hard to defend its credibility after the video became viral... read more about that fight here.

18. Appeals to a nation's identity. The video isn't just about arresting Kony. It's about creating a society we're proud to live in. Towards the end of the film, Russell says: "We have reached a crucial time in history, where what we do or don't do, right now, will affect every generation to come. Arresting Joseph Kony will prove that the world we live in has new rules... we are not just studying human history-- we are shaping it." He isn't just challenging his viewers to sign a petition or write Congress-- he's challenging them to reshape the world we live in... a powerful tactic reminiscent of the Sagan Series.

19. Celebrities. Bono. Stephen Colbert. Justin Bieber. Angelina Jolie. The list goes on. Enough said. (Read more about these targeted "culture makers" here.)

20. A cumulative effect. This campaign does all of the above, and more, at once. The reason it was a SMASH hit, and not just a hit, is because it combined all of these little details. This is important. No single tactic led to its success. A dozen small decisions came together to make one powerful statement.

At this point you might be thinking, "That's great and all-- but what about the backlash?"

It's hard to celebrate the positive aspects of this campaign without also feeling the weight of its consequences. The one that stands out most to me is this: A campaign that works for social media isn't necessarily a campaign that works for the people it's trying to save. Despite all these brilliant tactics and good intentions, this film has reopened old wounds for some Ugandans, who, as one Ugandan writes, "would rather close this dark chapter of our history and move on." Read more here:

On the flip side, it's also become clear that Kony2012 is the popular kid mainstream media loves to hate. Check out two hilarious clips on The Daily Show here and here.

Regardless of the controversy, there's no question anymore that video is POWERFUL-- and every nonprofit with an important message to broadcast should take heed. Read more about this in the The New York Times.

Agree? Disagree? We want to know what YOU think of KONY 2012. Leave a comment below, or join the conversation on Facebook or Twitter.

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Reader Comments (7)

This is a really good list and there are some good things that other film makers can take away and apply.

The one distinction I think it's *really* important to make though is that Kony2012 is not an advocacy film in the way you or I would make it. It's a very slick piece of propaganda, purporting to be a documentary, and I think that's what's caused a lot of the noise about it.
They've been making videos for years - many of which don't even mention Uganda.

This point's made well in this clip from the UK version of The Daily Show (warning: dark British humour) http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Igw8fA962X8

March 20, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterAdam Westbrook

Two things:

1. This was an excellent article, thanks. But while reading through the 20 reasons, I couldn't help but be transported back to my high school English class as we read Moby Dick, disbelieving my teacher as he states that the author consciously created symbolism after symbolism throughout the book. As I am not a filmmaker, I wonder - do you really think that each of these 20 viral reasons were consciously thought of and hit upon to create the sensation that Kony 2012 became? Was part of it... just luck? I think that many nonprofits might be afraid to call it that.

2. The filmmaker was picked up in San Diego a couple of days ago apparently having undergone a mental breakdown, and was hospitalized for dehydration, malnutrition, and other maladies. I hope that he doesn't come out of this debate less empathetic than he was, because no matter the data and controversy - the strongest emotion that differs humans from animals is empathy. As humans, we have to have empathy first, and then be allowed to reason. Cold reasoning has never done a person good.

March 20, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterLindsey

Adam, thanks for your comment! I think most advocacy films fall somewhere between documentary and propaganda/advertising. Kony2012 is definitely more towards the latter, but generally speaking I think it still fits the umbrella term of "advocacy".

That being said, it REALLY bothered me when the video was being reported by newspapers and TV journalist as a "documentary". It is most certainly not a documentary nor does it follow those ethics. In defense of the filmmakers, when I watched a short segment of them on Piers Morgan, they called the Kony2012 a "movie". Thought that was an interesting choice of words - maybe they feel people would be more excited to watch a "movie" than a "film" or a "YouTube video". Very interesting, all these little details...

Thanks again for the post!

March 20, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterTucker Walsh

Lindsey - thank you! Somehow I totally forgot to add LUCK! Hugely important in viral success and pretty much anything else in life :)

As for whether the 20 points above were consciously thought of during the making of Kony2012, I would guess most of them were in some way, shape or form. Maybe each wasn't discussed at length, but I'm inclined to think this was a big enough project that the majority were brought up at some point in the making of this campaign. However, I DON'T think that getting sent to a mental health facility for running around the streets naked was part of the game-plan ;)

March 20, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterTucker Walsh

Fantastic and thought provoking discussion! Thank you all!

Lindsey, I'm glad you mentioned something about the filmmaker's recent stumble-- when I heard about it, I felt really badly for the guy, and I DO feel he's been unfairly demonized by the cynics out there, so I made a conscious choice not to link to that story in this post. Like Adam said, we journalistic types would have produced this story differently-- but that doesn't negate the fact that Russell is a talented storyteller, and his heart seems to be in the right place. At least I hope it is.

March 20, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterAmy

This just in-- interesting reaction from Ugandan filmgoers:

Thousands showed up last night in the town of Lira, Uganda, to watch the film for the first time, reports Al Jazeera. "Having heard so many great things about the film, the crowd's expectations were high," but it wasn't pretty:

The audience was at first puzzled to see the narrative led by an American man – Jason Russell – and his young son.

Towards the end of the film, the mood turned more to anger at what many people saw as a foreign, inaccurate account that belittled and commercialised their suffering, as the film promotes Kony bracelets and other fundraising merchandise, with the aim of making Kony infamous.

One woman I spoke to made the comparison of selling Osama Bin Laden paraphernalia post 9/11 – likely to be highly offensive to many Americans, however well intentioned the campaign behind it.

The event ended with the angrier members of the audience throwing rocks and shouting abusive criticism, as the rest fled for safety, leaving an abandoned projector, with organisers and the press running for cover until the dust settled.

Read more: http://www.nymag.com/daily/intel/2012/03/kony-2012-fallout-moves-to-uganda.html

March 20, 2012 | Registered CommenterAmy Marquis

Wow! You know what though. I'm not sure this film was meant for Ugandans. They live with this. To them, this was not an invisible problem, and I can not personally fathom the raw emotions that come from airing such personal and national pain. But how many of us (meaning westerners) had looked beyond daily media headlines to learn about this before the video went viral? I'm not passing judgement on the film or the audiences, but I think that's an important point to remember when deciding how to critique and show the film. I want to know if this video, and all the bracelets, etc., are actually going to help catch the guy. Will it help the Ugandans or will it just be a way to make us feel better when made aware of something so horrendous and geographically distant?

March 23, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterMo

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