Who is that boy? Faraway wars and Western media

CG5rR3MWQAA-12q.jpgVicky Walker writes a thought provoking piece objecting to advertising that co-opts images of children in war zones to sell contact lenses. A link to the reference can be found here.

Last Saturday I listened to Katie, who works with an NGO in war-ravaged countries, describe the mind-blowingly desperate situations in which people find themselves when their homes, communities, families, and societies are destroyed. 

“If you are rich or relatively rich in a warzone,” she remarked, “you will go far and you will go fast. If not, you will be left behind." Last Sunday a powerful example of being poor and left behind appeared on TV screens: a bedraggled, bewildered, toddler clutching a grubby teddy bear, alone in the rubble of an unnamed land. Not the latest news from Syria, Iraq, or Ukraine, but the debut of a new advert for an optician.

In seventy seconds of already-feted film, Sir Trevor McDonald narrates a montage of compelling scenes intended to provide an overview of the world-changing moments he witnessed during his TV reporting career: the fall of the Berlin Wall, the end of apartheid in South Africa, and American presidential elections. And, of course, war. In some scenes events are clearly identifiable, in others nameless, terrified, women and children serve as a backdrop of generic trauma to his voiceover. Over footage of the toddler he comments with trademark sobriety on “The innocence of those who couldn’t possibly comprehend…” but strangely doesn’t add, “that their misery and desolation would be used to sell specs.”

Who is that boy? What country is he in? What war? Where is he now? It’s not supposed to matter. He may have been wondering whether his mother is still alive and why he’s alone in the dust, but that’s no concern of ours. The child – who may now be old enough to be a migrant landing on Kos, greeted with anger and death wishes – is just a prop. The advert asks us to identify not with the boy, but with Sir Trevor: look after your eyes and you too may get to witness Important Things. Passively observe the suffering of others as part of your rich life experience and “be changed”. “We are defined by what we’ve seen” is the ad’s opening line, and what we see is anonymised, abstracted, suffering, co-opted as a reminder to pop down to the High Street and read letters off a chart.


There’s more here than just carefully selected news footage, though. We have cut to the boy from a studio-shot close-up of a child’s hand stroking a bear. The little hand tugging at the toy changes to the real, confused, child clutching his bear (there’s a similar addition of hands grasping across the divide ahead of the Berlin Wall scene). Did the ad-makers fear the impact of the boy’s obvious distress would be lessened if seen only from afar? Was there a W1A-style development meeting raising concerns? “Unfortunately, the explosions and threat of imminent death mean there’s no footage of the boy and bear backstory, but we could re-imagine that in a lovely little vignette before cutting to him lying dazed in the dust?”  

The ad presents as a Big Idea, with an eye on plaudits and awards from peers, but when did scenes of fellow humans at their most vulnerable become a great vehicle to sell contact lenses? “We are defined by what we’ve seen,” is the opening line, but what do we see? Images of disenfranchised people appear on screens daily, but with the premise of telling their stories as news or to solicit help for them (a contentious topic likely to be debated more as some charities’ workings are exposed). A group of savvy fighters have subverted this, realising just what it takes to be noticed in the West. ‘Syrian rebels fully endorse Caitlyn Jenner,’ tweeted The Independent recently. Yes, those thoughtful chaps have taken time out from battling the Assad regime to stand in solidarity with Caitlyn, even making a banner for a colorful photo opportunity. Except… well, that’s not what’s really happening here, is it? We will change the first letter of our town to a C if we too can be free, they say. They are crying out to be seen and remembered. Their fight for freedom is a life and death struggle still raging after over 300,000 deaths, yet they will be thrown a headline only because they thrust themselves into a Western popular culture conversation.

images.jpgWe can do better than this, can’t we? Hold on to our humanity and the humanity of those far away who are being decimated. Not forget that their pain could be our pain too. Not expect them to provide the backdrop to a glossy ad, or a Buzzfeed-friendly moment just to be noticed. “You’re never the same after all that, you know,” Sir Trevor concludes at the end of Vision Express ad, safely back in a pleasant, leafy, park, and he’s right. Sir Trevor is a respected journalist who has traveled the world reporting on situations for an audience who couldn’t see for themselves. He is entitled to reflect on those experiences and their personal effect. It’s just harder to see where marketing plans, click bait, and advertising fit into the picture. 

'Vicky Walker is a writer and speaker, among other things. She writes about life, culture, and faith in the form of books, articles, stories, and more and she tweets a lot at https://twitter.com/vicky_walker'

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