Why is the new Oxfam campaign called 'GROW'? The importance of framing

What kind of a campaign calls itself ‘GROW’? Answer, a different kind. My first reaction on hearing the aural equivalent of puffs of smoke was a small jolt of surprise, and then a pleasurable ‘hey, that could be interesting.’ I’ve seen the same baffled curiosity on a few other people’s faces when they hear the name, so I’ve talked to some of the people responsible to find out how Oxfam arrived at ‘Grow’ rather than some variant on ‘Hungry for Change’ (Oxfam’s 1980s food campaign) or even (shudder) ‘Food Justice in a Resource Constrained World’ – the new campaign’s working title for the last year or so.

The campaign’s identity, summed up in its strapline ‘Grow: Food, Life, Planet’ marks a significant shift in thinking about how public Grow logocampaigning brings about change. It moves from a focus on specific policy changes (e.g. on trade rules or debt relief), to something much deeper – changing the way people think. And not just (or even mainly) activists – the target audience is a much wider global audience of ‘world aware’ people. The intention is to tackle the underlying issue of ‘framing’ – the way people see the world, rooted in individual and collective psychology, culture and experience, not just the comparatively restricted and arcane world of ‘evidence-based policy making’ that we normally inhabit.

To be honest, as more of a policy wonk than a campaigner, I struggle to grasp the full implications of framing, but it’s prompted a lot of interest among NGOs (see this paper co-authored by Martin Kirk, head of Oxfam’s UK campaigns). What I think it is saying is that any campaign has to operate on multiple levels – sure you target bad guys, policy changes, etc, but over the long haul, the messaging has to reinforce the kind of world views that are needed for lasting progress, and not undermine them. And for that, tone matters at least as much as content. Positive or negative? Threat or opportunity? Caring or angry? The classic example is fund raising – ‘poverty porn’ images of misery and starvation may raise more cash in the short term, but they create a frame of passivity and hopelessness that is both misleading and insulting, and which undermines long term progress.

framesWhere it gets interesting is that when we (or rather some professional pollsters) went out and tested these theories in eight countries, five of them developing (India, South Africa, Brazil, Indonesia and Mexico, along with the USA, Netherlands and Spain) we got a common response on the kind of frame that would attract people to a campaign – a positive vision for the future, with a focus on sharing. None of the original ideas for the campaign identity worked on this level, so we ditched them. ‘Grow‘ emerged from the subsequent soul-searching/brainstorming and then stuck in people’s heads.

What about all the normal language of activism – justice, rights, end this, stop that? Turns out it is just that – the language of activists, but non-activist-but-potentially-sympathetic people (North and South) often find it harsh and offputting – all throwing rocks and donning hair shirts, and not much joy.

Yet to achieve ‘food justice in a resource constrained world’ a degree of conflict is inevitable. Greed, short-sightedness and the increasing likelihood of distributive conflicts over land, water or license to pollute make that certain. Food riots in 30 countries in 2008 show the limits to the Big Hug approach. We will need to make sure that the emphasis on positive, sharing, win-win type campaigning does not downplay the struggles that are unavoidable if we are to end poverty while staying within planetary limits.

That means finding a language that works both for that wider public and for activists. It won’t be easy – I felt that tension in the media work around the launch, where being repeatedly asked ‘who are the bad guys?’, ‘what’s the problem?’ etc reinforces a crisis narrative that rapidly squeezes out any positive vision.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the campaign title is the way it deliberately takes on the issue of economic growth. We want to reclaim the ‘grow’ in ‘growth’ for what really matters – growing good food to eat, watching your children grow up healthy and fulfilled, ensuring that planet and people flourish in the long term. That means recapturing the true meaning of ‘grow’ from the dead hand of GDP, which still holds sway over decision makers, despite doubts creeping in on the margins, expressed in the ‘beyond GDP’ and well-being work of Stiglitz, the OECD and others. On the other side of the debate are the hairshirtists and degrowthers, whose negative framing – limits to growth, degrowth etc – has signally failed to get much purchase. In the run-up to the Rio+20 Earth Summit next June, we’ll be trying to find a way through this minefield. Daunting but very exciting.

My only remaining fear? An avalanche of bad puns on the go/grow theme – grow figure; grow well etc etc. This could get ugly.

So over to you, the target audience (sort of – you’re probably all a bit too wonky). Vote on the poll to the right and let’s see if ‘Grow’ passes the test (no idea what we do if it fails……..).

And here’s a nice little animation that illustrates what we’re on about.

[iframe width=”520″ height=”300″ src=”http://www.youtube.com/embed/hkg9ADEIPXM” frameborder=”0″ allowfullscreen>]

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12 Responses to “Why is the new Oxfam campaign called 'GROW'? The importance of framing”
  1. Martin Kirk

    Thanks Duncan – a very handy exposition of what we’re trying to do. And the two tensions you mention are absolutely right – how to portray the necessary and inevitable hard edge, high emotion, aggressive campaigning when necessary (as it will of course be) and how to resist the temptation to dive back into negative or binary (right/wrong, goodie/baddie) framing in some of the narrative, especially with the media who can trade – and demand we trade – in such dynamics. But to be honest, these are, I think, perfectly manageable challenges, in theory; we just need a common and clear core frame, around which all manner of messaging and propositions can swarm. Our biggest challenge is the practice, and getting enough critical people genuinely thinking about the deeper and longer term impacts of what we say and do. When the chips are down, it is all too easy to fall back into the short term, “it will get attention/alert activists/look pretty/bring in money today, and that’s good enough” approach. If the frames and values work says anything, it’s that the impacts of what we say and do – in campaigns, fundraising, shops, corporate comunications – echo wider and for longer than the lifespan of a single campaign. If we are blind and deaf to the longer term impacts, we are just blocking ourselves in tomorrow to the core challenges we battle with today around public and political support.

    So thanks for chewing on this name question, Duncan. Concise, pithy stuff, as always.

  2. Sue Batstone

    Very impressed with Robert Chamber’s comment. As organic farmers, we know a bit about keeping soils productive. We also feel sustainable sanitation is the lynch pin to improving health, wealth, dignity and food security in poor communities.
    Is Oxfam really looking into ecological approaches to sanitation – both for emergencies and longer term use? Waste cannot be wasted much longer! I would welcome a chance to discuss this.

  3. I love it! This removes the focus on the doom and gloom of the problems that we see and hear about and focuses on the positives and rallying around the solutions. Kudos to Oxfam for tapping into this vein.

  4. Gareth Price-Jones

    I have to say that after initial doubts I’m liking it too, and think the framing is essential – too many campaigns (and a lot of the comments that accompanied online news coverage) focus too much on simplified views of the problems and not on the myriad possible solutions. As outlined in Ben Elton’s ‘This Other Eden’, the risk is that people, particularly Westerners, just give up and disengage. For example, yes, population growth is an issue, but people aren’t just inert mouths to feed. Although the planet may ultimately be zero sum (and hey, there are a few more out there for the long term thinkers), ingenuity is infinite.

    @Sue – I’m the Country Director for Oxfam’s program in Bangladesh, and we’ve been using urine-diversion latrines in our programs here for a couple of years now – still some challenges on the social acceptance of using the resulting outputs, and not yet applicable at the urban scale where it would make a real difference, but going well so far!

  5. Jack

    So tell me about the outrageous, patronising, self-serving TV ad for GROW that I saw last night.

    You can see it on the GROW page of Oxfam’s website. The ad shows an African woman called ‘Akiru’. She’s not otherwise identified – where she’s from, what her full name is etc. She’s presented as a representative of ‘Africa’: exotic, different & incompetent.

    The portentous voiceover intones: “Her children are so hungry they cry all through the night. … We can fix this … Give £5 per month to Oxfam.”

    So here are the messages it gives out:
    – African people wear funny clothes and live traditional, pre-modern lives.
    – They scratch a living from Africa’s barren soil.
    – They are passive victims, waiting for external help.
    – The best thing that British citizens can do is to give money to Oxfam.

    What nonsense. I don’t think you’ve missed a single cliche. It’s all actively harmful, setting up the wrong frames for any kind of meaningful international cooperation.

    Hasn’t Oxfam moved on from these colonial attitudes – or, worse still, do senior people in Oxfam think this is OK? What do your field staff think? You should be ashamed of yourself.

    Or is this ‘grow’ about growing Oxfam’s bank balance? I for one won’t be giving.

  6. Liam McClure

    Great blog Duncan,

    I am currently volunteering for Oxfam Scotland and thought that you would be interested in a project we are undertaking at the moment, The Humankind Index. Basically it is looking to go beyond using economic growth to measure prosperity of a country and take in other aspects of life such as relationships, environment, health etc. to hopefully show what is truly important to people. Have a look at the link below for more info, any thoughts or feedback would be greatly appreciated.

    Thanks again for the great blog.


  7. Rachel Porter

    It’s a nice campaign as far as campaigns go. Fresh produce…

    But this blog post has created a sort of vague and fuzzy notion. You say that today’s campaign has to be less about specific policy changes and more about changing how people think. Perhaps..but I’m not sure a public that demands feel-good, ‘positive’, messaging is going to be the same public that actually does anything more than click on your Like button and maybe stop using plastic bags at the supermarket.

    This need for a change of tone to me is a reflection of a shallow culture that can’t handle hard truths, the idea of sacrifice, and is rather childish. You are rallying the slacktivists. And it is the activists that have always brought on change. You are playing into the same deeply consumeristic culture that has created the mess to begin with…

  8. Interesting campaign and more than that it has been named easily so people will recall it whithout any problem. Perhaps we need to dig some old concepts up and spread them just like themselves. There is a lot of initiatives which are based on simplicity in order to make our world better.

  9. Adriana Ribeiro

    Small farming is the way to go!

    However, Oxfam does well to avoid genetic engineered crops, as these may lead to worldwide famine faster than any else.

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