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Marketing Agency, Branding Hope: War, Kony, and "Three Cups of Tea"

[“Three Cups of Tea” co-author Greg Mortenson shows the locations of future village schools to U.S. Navy Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, in July 2009. Photo by Chad J. McNeeley/AP.] [“Three Cups of Tea” co-author Greg Mortenson shows the locations of future village schools to U.S. Navy Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, in July 2009. Photo by Chad J. McNeeley/AP.]

October seventh marked the eleventh anniversary of the US-led invasion of Afghanistan, making it by far the longest war in US history. The date passed with little public fanfare. Despite vibrant and unprecedented US and global anti-war movements, as well as broad public opposition within the United States, open-ended war has become the backdrop to US society: it is no longer front-page news. 

Yet on this somber anniversary, the media was abuzz with Oprah Winfrey’s much-anticipated interview with Jason Russell, Chief Creative Officer/Co-Founder and director of the viral video, KONY 2012. After the stunning spread and then massive political controversy surrounding KONY 2012, Russell himself, rather than the political content of IC’s work, lies at the center of public intrigue and controversy. Winfrey wrings out painful details of Russell’s life and brings in his wife Danica Russell, and the Ugandan who was the alleged inspiration for Invisible Children, Jacob Acaye, in order to get their reactions to Russell’s personal hardship following the success of the video.

This is an important moment to reflect on the ways that militarism has affected our lives and changed public perception of the use of military violence as normal. It also gives occasion to look at how an era of endless war has given birth to some political and social campaigns that accept militarism as given, and at times outright embrace military solutions to social and humanitarian problems.

We look at the media strategies, messages, and images that underlie the dizzying success of the film KONY 2012 and Greg Mortenson’s book, Three Cups of Tea. We also examine the role that exploitation of children and youth, as well as concepts of education and child welfare, play in their respective fundraising efforts. We investigate the broader conditions that enabled their viral spread and allowed them to receive millions of dollars in donations from around the world. We aim to cut through the veneer and shed light on the gap between the stated and real impact these nonprofits have on the world and expose the acceptance of militarism that underlies their supposedly apolitical solutions to real problems.


In early March of this year, KONY 2012 catapulted into instantaneous fame. This slick, professionally produced video tells the story, through the narrative of IC co-founder Jason Russell, of the organization's campaign to track down and stop General Joseph Kony of the Lord's Resistance Army in East and Central Africa. The video spread virally, grossing over one hundred million views in the first six days, making it the most successful video campaign of its kind. A sequel to the film, titled KONY 2012 Part II, was released on 5 April, 2012. On the same night as Oprah’s interview, IC also released their latest YouTube video Move, which chronicles the creation of KONY 2012, and through this lens, the building of a youth movement that is not over and still has important work to do.

There is another humanitarian organization that has a very visible and successful founder who has also been in the public spotlight recently. This man is Greg Mortenson, and his organization is the CAI (Central Asia Institute), an NGO he founded with the mission of building schools in Pakistan and Afghanistan.

Three Cups of Tea: One Man’s Mission to Promote PeaceOne School at a Time was an unrivaled success when it was published in 2007. This memoir-style tale of Greg Mortenson's quest to build schools in Pakistan and Afghanistan, and the development of the nonprofit Central Asia Institute (CAI), climbed to the New York Times Best Sellers list, where it stayed for four years, and was translated into forty-seven different languages. Mortenson became a US folk hero of global fame, hitting the international speaking circuit, and persuading millions to reach deep into their pockets to support his cause, including President Obama, who donated a sizable chunk of his Nobel Peace Prize award to CAI.

Despite this great success, Mortenson eventually faced criticism regarding the accounting practices at CAI and revelations, by people like John Krakauer, a former CAI supporter, who in his book Three Cups of Deceit, amasses evidence that shows that many of the schools that CAI claims it has built are actually non-existent or non-operational. Not only the schools, but much of Greg Mortenon’s story never happened. For example, one of Mortenson’s alleged “Taliban” kidnappers, Badum Gul, exposed Mortenson’s tale of abduction and by the Taliban as a fraud in an Al Jazeera interview. Also, Pakistani mountaineer Masood Ahmad provided a detailed video explanation of how Mortenson’s discovery story of Korphe was physically impossible, based on his firsthand knowledge of the area.

While both of these media campaigns were rocked with scandal, controversy, and outrage, their enormous success is indisputable. They employed sophisticated media campaigns to draw in unprecedented audiences, rake in donations, and transform their organizations into household brands.

IC's KONY 2012 campaign exploits children in the United States and other Western nations, as well as children in Uganda. To say that the campaign exploits children it does not mean that children are exploited directly (e.g. using their labor without remuneration), but that images and concepts of what “children are” and what childhood should be are used in order to evoke emotional responses that will, it is hoped, motivate children to participate in IC's campaign and motivate viewers of all ages to fund its work.

The KONY 2012 video is a story with a narrative arc similar to a heroic, fantasy story or an action film. The video first creates a context and a setting in which the story must take place. This is done by showing images of Jason Russell's son, Gavin, and providing images of the typical, comfortable, wholesome, and nourishing home environment that will be familiar to millions of white, middle-class Americans.

Into this safe and comforting environment IC introduces a contrasting environment, a shadow world that is the exact opposite of the one Gavin inhabits. This environment has its own Gavin in the form of the Ugandan boy, Jacob, discovered by Russell and his companions. This shadow world also has its own counterpart to Jason Russell, in the form of the villain of the story, Joseph Kony. This story even has a hero, in the form of the youth of America who will eventually use their collective power to stop Kony by becoming their own army to combat Kony’s LRA.

Uganda is portrayed as a hellish world where, unlike Russell's son Steven, children are not allowed to have a "childhood" as the concept is understood in the middle-American consciousness: childhood should be a time of innocence, freedom from worry, and a time for exploration and learning. The changing nature of the American concept of the child has been studied in many works, such as Steven Mintz’s Huck’s Raft: A History of American Childhood. Kony is the villain of this story and inhabits this environment; he is portrayed as the source of evil in Uganda, and must be defeated if the children of Uganda are to have the kind of lives that Gavin enjoys. This is the job of the youth of America, who enter the narrative as the only force capable of stopping Kony, because adults, like their parents or politicians, are too distracted by other issues or simply don't care enough.

The video shows images of child refugees, child soldiers, and Kony's army, the LRA. Except for excerpts of interviews with Ugandan associates of IC, the viewer is presented with virtually no other images or informationabout Uganda except those relating to Kony and his horrendous crimes. In fact, the images on display are basically the same as those typically shown of black Africa; backwardness, savagery, war, anarchy, and ineffective and weak governments that are either unwilling, or unable to help their own people. Five minutes and fifty-seven seconds into the film, Jason Russell declares, in reference to the plight of Jacob and other Ugandan children abused by Kony, “If that happened one night in America, it would be on the cover of Newsweek.” At four minutes and forty seconds, a uniformed man appears from out of the shadows and orders Russell to stop filming an interview with Jacob. The purpose of these images, and their contrast to the ideal of American life, is to shock viewers into having an emotional response. The very real plight of many of Uganda's children is used to motivate the film’s young American viewers into supporting IC’s campaign.

All products have a target demographic, and IC’s KONY 2012 campaign is no different. The youth of America (and all the West) are the target audience for this film. The images of children from Uganda are used for the purpose of motivating Western youth, and the purpose of the entire film is to eventually convince this audience to apply pressure to their political representatives to authorize the use of American soldiers in Central Africa, ostensibly to "stop" Kony.

The entire aesthetic of the film — including its music, sounds, and imagery — is intended to resonate with teenagers and young adults in the West. The video and online campaign materials, while featuring mostly white individuals shown as activists, do include multi-cultural, multi-ethnic imagery. Not all of the youth featured in the video are white and this gives the campaign a much broader appeal. But this is simply a veneer of inclusion, the inclusion of youth of color in the campaign is similar to the “inclusive” marketing campaigns carried out by other companies, such as The United Colors of Benetton.

Of-the-moment cultural artifacts are employed to make the film more appealing for this demographic. The music is a particularly good example of this. The section of the film that introduces IC's plan to launch a mass guerilla marketing campaign in April uses the music of electronic music producer, Flux Pavilillion. Flux Pavillion creates music in what is known to most young Americans as "Dubstep," a genre which is currently extremely popular with certain segments of American youths. The use of this particular song reveals that the filmmakers know their audience well and have strategically fashioned the film to appeal to the audience's sensibilities.

The film also exploits another Western concept regarding youth; the idea of youth as a time of rebellion. The film feeds its audience (Western youth) images of themselves as a powerful source for revolution and social change and implies that only the youth have the power to solve the problems which Kony has created. In fact, IC's whole campaign, not only the KONY 2012 video, is a commodification of revolution. The images of youth running through urban environments, spray-painting political slogans on concrete, the red and black color scheme (traditionally the colors of Communism and the left), and maybe most tellingly, the "action kit."

The "action kit" contains everything one would need to become a real revolutionary, including bracelets, t-shirts, bumper stickers, and buttons which identify one as being a participant in the KONY 2012 campaign. An IC advertisement for the kit declares, “People will think you are an advocate of awesome with this official Action Kit. Since KONY 2012 is a yearlong campaign, you can decorate yourself and the town all year long with this one-stop shop. Everything you'll need to take part in our KONY 2012 campaign is included.” The "action kit" is a revolution-in-a-box that marks one as a socially conscious revolutionary in a consumer capitalist society where a person's identify is formed as much by what one owns and purchasing decisions as by ethnicity, native culture and language, or nationality.

However, the KONY 2012 campaign is just like any other marketing campaign or product launch; it began within some institution amongst a small group of individuals and is propagated and "sold" to a wider market through advertisements. The campaign is only revolutionary in a commodified sense. The Western youth who are the targets of this campaign are being exploited by IC for the benefit of an agenda that those same youth probably barely understand, an agenda IC does not really clarify in the promotional KONY 2012 video.

As successful as the video was, it also drew almost immediate criticism, especially from Ugandans, many of whom charged KONY 2012 with profoundly mischaracterizing the situation and representing Ugandans as helpless and savage. Ugandan American Sanyu Lubogo attracted over 4.3 million views with her YouTube video indicting KONY 2012 for presenting a false picture of Kony’s involvement in Uganda. Hers and others ability to post counter-narratives on YouTube demonstrates that while a group like IC can win huge success on the internet, their control over the discourse will never be hegemonic. IC’s version of events is popular but has not eliminated the agency of those Ugandans who struggle to have their voices heard.

The KONY 2012 campaign marks the beginning of a new paradigm in the age that has seen the emergence of astroturfed “social movements.” This does not mean that KONY 2012 is the first campaign to use social media but that this is the campaign which, by its success, signals a movement into a new paradigm for marketers from all sectors, and NGOs specifically. Other legitimate social movements have definitely used social media, but those movements were never presented as “products” or commodities in quite the same way as the KONY 2012 campaign.

KONY 2012 marks the beginning of the social movement as product, the social movement as commodity, the social movement as branded experience and franchised enterprise. Although IC is a legitimate NGO staffed and created by individuals who seem to care deeply for the issues of northern Uganda, the way it "sells" its movement and agenda to an audience by using state-of-the-art marketing techniques is disturbing. More so than the actual issue of the crimes of Kony's LRA, the presentation of the KONY 2012 video is the message, the medium has taken precedence over the content, and this is by design.

The result is that images of the suffering of black Ugandan children (Kony's crimes against adults are barely mentioned) are exploited in an attempt to exploit the children of the West. The Ugandan children barely have a voice, and the American youth are simply a target of a savvy marketing campaign. It is even more disheartening to know that this exploitation is carried out in the name of convincing the American government to once again become involved militarily in another region of the world, this time central Africa.

Liberal Education as Panacea

Like KONY 2012, the exploitation of children lies at the center of Three Cups of Tea’s narrative. However, within Greg Mortenson’s story, Afghan and Pakistani children are represented primarily as receptacles of liberal education, and thus drivers of Western-style social transformation. Mortenson draws heavily on American ideals of liberal education, as well as a post-9/11 US political climate in which the Muslim is the dangerous “other,” to build an argument for the special role that CAI plays in liberating Muslim societies and keeping America safe. Children appear as instruments for carrying this project forward, as well as the recipients of generous and life-changing humanitarian aid. Unlike KONY 2012, which uses images of children to motivate youth to become part of a “movement,” Mortenson employs images of youth to move people with money to support Mortenson himself.

Like KONY 2012, Three Cups of Tea has an action film-style narrative arc, starring white, humanitarian hero Greg Mortenson. After a failed attempt to climb Pakistan’s foreboding K2 Mountain, Mortenson loses his way and, has a near brush with death, and then stumbles upon the village of Korphe. He is charmed by the simple, kind inhabitants of this village yet horrified to learn that the villagers do not have a school and shared a teacher with the neighboring village. This book is the story of Mortenson’s determination and persistence to build schools for this and similarly depicted villages despite overwhelming obstacles, including alleged kidnapping by the Taliban (later proven a fabrication), threats from the Islamic clergy, and the financial difficulties of launching his project. Within this story, Mortenson’s success is measured by his ability to bring education to children, particularly girls, in the heart of Taliban territory. The strength of his project is his ability to cut through red tape, circumvent bureaucracies, and maintain focus on the mission, as well as his unwavering dedication to the cause. Mortenson takes the role of a lone cowboy, trekking through Taliban country to singlehandedly give the gift of education to deprived youth.

Unlike KONY 2012, the society of the “other” is not presented as a hellish war of all against all, but rather, exotic, backwards, simple, and idyllic. When Mortenson accidentally stumbles upon Korphe, the town suddenly appears within his line of vision, in a dramatic rendition resembling the privileged moments of Hollywood movies. Our hero gazes out at a village nestled into apricot orchards where strange, exotic women carry baskets of fruit. Under Mortenson’s gaze, they seem to possess the same mysterious charm of their environment: "They pulled their shawls over their faces when they saw him and ran to put trees between themselves and the Angrezi, the strange white man” (p.24).

Children immediately flock to Mortenson who takes turn holding the hands of these children who possess no individual characteristics, but are merely part of this environment, like the mountains and apricot fields. Yet, Mortenson is dismayed to discover that poverty and backwardness are part and parcel of this idyllic environment. Thus, our hero is hit by the realization that human suffering and backwardness are part and parcel of this charming place. By the time he enters the village, there are fifty children trailing behind him. With this triumphant arrival into the village, Mortenson has established himself the savior of Korphe's children before he has built a single school. 

Every time Mortenson enters a village, he is greeted with a hero’s welcome, whether trailed by children with torn dirty clothes curious about this tall, gentle foreigner, or cheered by villagers whose lives have been transformed by the schools he has built for them. Character after character testifies to the blessing that Mortenson has brought to their villages by giving them the gift of education. Yet, this book never looks beyond this generalized euphoria and gratitude: Mortenson never delves into the specific content of the education these schools offer. He claims to offer a “balanced, nonextremist education” (p. 295) but leaves the specific content of this education vague. Thus, Mortenson sells the idea of liberal education to supporters who are left completely in the dark about what kind of education actually takes place in the schools.

Within this story, the promise of liberal education interacts with post-9/11 stereotypes. Mortenson uses images of educated girls in Taliban territory to build his argument that he is playing a special role in transforming lives and society for the better. Mortenson appears to offer an alternative to the vilification and demonization of Muslim societies, by showing Muslims as good and simple, yet deprived of the opportunities their Western counterparts enjoy, primarily education. Mortenson even argues in a meeting with Pentagon officials that education of girls in Taliban country is an alternative to military invasion. He seems to invite the reader to share in his vision of peace: his message speaks to US audiences who seek to reach across ethnic and cultural divides. Yet, this is a narrative that renders non-Americans as dimensionless and devoid of agency, while Americans alone are depicted as fully human.

Unlike KONY 2012, Mortenson is not offering a slick revolution-in-a-box solution aimed at selling a commodified version of youth action. He simply uses education and children to sell himself and his work. Mortenson employs the more traditional formats of written memoir, speaking tours, and television spots to popularize the brand of CAI and build the case that he is uniquely positioned to bring modernity and progress to the Muslim world. He does not invite his supporters to walk alongside him, but rather, draws upon the belief in the unassailable good of education and the perceived backwardness of Muslim societies to move others to support his nonprofit. Like KONY 2012, Mortenson offers a depoliticized, sanitized solution, rooted in notions of white, US superiority. Yet, his audience is merely invited to watch from the sidelines.

Mortenson relies heavily on his own personal brand, using novels and public appearances to craft the image of a daring, brave crusader who is also humble, compassionate, and soft-spoken. Personal likability and trustworthiness are the capital that Mortenson uses to secure donations from patrons and to increase his media visibility. Unlike KONY 2012, which seeks to franchise a youth social movement, much of the core fan base of Three Cups of Tea is middle-aged, middle-class white women. This very same demographic helped to propel Three Cups of Tea from an unknown paperback to a four-year New York Times bestseller.

Beneath the media campaigns of CAI and IC lies the real and unexamined impact of their respective work in the countries where they operate. We must also look beyond the branding of these respective organizations to uncover the US military power that intersects with the “soft” power of humanitarian work.

Militarism in Sheep’s Clothing

In 2010, IC and other organizations were successful in effecting legislation that would lead to US military involvement in Central Africa when President Barack Obama signed the "Lord's Resistance Army Disarmament and Northern Uganda Recovery Act." Russell even boasts that IC’s success in persuading President Obama to sign the aforementioned act is the first time in the history of the United States that the United States has committed military resources to a region, not for self-defense, but because “the people demanded it…because it was right.”

Members of IC were even present in the Oval Office of the White House during the signing. IC’s plea for military involvement in not just Uganda, but other Central African nations (Russell admits in the video that Kony and the LRA are no longer occupying parts of Uganda and have spread themselves around other Central African nations, with a map showing this movement [around 15:00]) coincides with increased US military involvement in Africa.

[“Invisible Children and Resolve activists watched as President Obama signed LRA disarmament bill they had championed”
 IC’s timing in advocating further military involvement in Africa should be cause for alarm. Photo from White House Archive.]

However, Russell and IC seem to be oblivious to the greater geopolitical context in which their campaign is situated. The possibility that unintended consequences may arise from inviting US soldiers into different Central African nations at precisely the time when these nations are increasingly the focus of economic and military attention by China never enters into the discussion.[1]

Similarly, Mortenson’s only discussion of CAI’s connection to the US military is uncritical, apolitical, and probably misguided. CAI and Greg Mortenson have been woven into the US military’s activity in Afghanistan. Several of the top commanding officers of the US military operating in Afghanistan have read Mortenson’s book, Three Cups of Tea, and he has spoken at dozens of military bases and corresponded with and counseled the likes of Generals Stanley McChrystal, David Petraeus, and former head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Mike Mullen. It has even been reported that Three Cups of Tea has been assigned as required reading to officers being deployed to the Afghan theatre. Apparently, General Petraeus and Admiral Mullen learned about Mortenson’s work from their wives, who were fans of his book.

In Three Cups of Tea, Mortenson insists that the work of CAI is a force against terror, yet remains separate from the US military campaign in Afghanistan. He tells of meeting with Pentagon officials, including Donald Rumsfeld, to whom he makes the argument that, by building schools for girls in Taliban country, CAI does the work of the US military with greater effectiveness and lower cost. "[T]ake the cost of one of those missiles tipped with a Raytheon guidance system..." he says. "For that much money, you could build dozens of schools that could provide tens of thousands of students with a balanced non-extremist education over the course of a generation. Which do you think would make us more secure?" (p. 295). Mortenson argues that education can achieve social transformation and pacification of Afghanistan better than brute military force. His argument is not against invasion, but rather, against the violence of “hard” power, which he views as less effective than the “soft” approach of humanitarian intervention. In 2008, Mortenson worked with the military to build a school near a US military base in Afghanistan, and has worked to bridge relationships between the US military and his Afghan contacts on the ground. In a 2010 New York Times article, Mortenson claimed that he was startled by the military’s embrace of his message despite his opposition to the US-led military campaign in that country.

While Mortenson may reject explicit military force, he perpetuates the logic of white, US supremacy that underlies the War on Terror. Mortenson’s embrace of education as a tool for social transformation of “backwards” societies in the image of the US must be seen as part of the ideological spectrum underpinning US military invasion. This is not to deny the advantages of education, but to recognize that, in the context of war and occupation, “humanitarian” work is not neutral, but rather, can have the overall effect of reinforcing foreign domination. In the case of the War on Terror, “humanitarian” goals have served as a major justification for invasion and open-ended occupation. The fact that the US military is so eager to work with Mortenson shows that his agenda is useful to US military efforts in Afghanistan. The fact that Mortenson is willing to uncritically work hand-in-hand with the US military shows that he is refusing to take responsibility for the political impact of his work, and he is inviting his supporters to do the same.

Looking Forward

Invisible Childrens’ KONY 2012 Campaign and Greg Mortenson’s CAI shows just how it easy it is for organizations and individuals to capitalize on youth desire to transform the world in a positive way. It also exposes the role of race, as well as stereotypes of the “Orient” and Islam, in creating the image of the “less fortunate” and building a justification for invasion and domination.

Both Invisible Children and the Central Asia Institute put forward commodified representations of social change which are a fundamental threat to the youth social movements that have swept the world in the past two years. From the Arab Uprisings to Occupy Wall Street, questions of youth and agency lie at the center of political and social struggles that are still unfolding. At every step along the way, these movements have faced the danger of appropriation by political and market forces aimed at transforming them into depoliticized, unthreatening, and profit-generating versions of themselves.

The fact that Oprah Winfrey’s 7th October interview with Russell coincided with the eleventh anniversary of the US-led invasion of Afghanistan constitutes an important moment to reflect on the ways that open-ended war has created the public perception that military violence is normal and unavoidable. It gives occasion to look at how an era of endless war has seen the development of political and social campaigns that accept militarism as given, and at times outright embrace military solutions to social problems. It drives home the importance of approaching movement work with eyes wide-open and critical faculties in full gear, to ensure we are building real alternatives to endless war.

[1] By way of background it is important to note that in February 2007 President George W. Bush authorized the creation of AFRICOM (Africa Command), which would oversee military operations on Africa. This responsibility had previously been shared between the US European Command, US Central Command (Middle East), and US Pacific Command. This is the first time in history that a special Unified Combatant Command has been designated for the continent of Africa. Growing reliance on African petroleum sources from the trans-Saharan region, Chinese involvement in the region, and terrorism are among the chief reasons for the increased US military interest in Africa.

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