Opinion: Messages can be brilliant - or patronising

Nick Cater, a consultant and writer: catercharity@yahoo.co.uk

There are many ways to make an impact with communications: obvious or subtle, nice or nasty, persuasive or confrontational.

Sometimes it's even possible to be beautiful and brilliant.

A couple of ideas from last year's Make Poverty History campaign stick in the memory. One was slick; the other was the real deal, reminding us viscerally of our common humanity.

First, celebrities snapped their fingers on TV to show the global toll in lives from diseases easy to catch, yet simple to prevent. You could be a cynic - who cares what Kate Moss thinks? - but since the best that TV can ever do is second best, the ad was a small triumph at a time when wristbands count as deep commitment.

For impact, however, try the miracle of the dying child reborn, as Birhan Weldu - famine 'victim' no more - came on stage at Live 8 to prove that efforts to help Africa help itself are not in vain. More recently, Amnesty International's excellent campaign against small arms has used crass teleshopping-style ads and leaflets to highlight the horrific incongruity of deadly weapons that are both freely available and appallingly cheap.

But some seem to find clear, direct communications complicated. Take the latest brochure plugging the work of Disasters Emergency Committee charities from the Department for International Development, which fails to point out that 99 per cent of all the work in any disaster is done by local people.

Its strongest image is a virtual duplicate of one long castigated for its patronising approach in showing an adult white hand holding a black child's hand. This time, the white hand wears a latex glove - which is probably a stronger symbolic message about international relations, attitudes to Africa and fear of the foreign than either the DEC or DfID intended.

Talking of symbolism, my award for communications goes to an idea used by French groups urging better treatment of migrants, refugees and asylum seekers in an annual solidarity walk through Lyon on 20 June for World Refugee Day.

Ubiquitous, mundane but with a hint of Surrealism about it, and adorned with the simple slogan "Il faut proteger les refugies", it is that ultimate icon of shelter from forces beyond our control: the umbrella.

One question remains: why hasn't the idea crossed the Channel? Between government policies, British racism and media bias, don't we get enough 'rain'?

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