Why Perceptions of Vulnerability in Young People Matter
Back in the day, pre-dramatic scandal, the charity Kids Company had another less well publicized media run in. Having run a series of ads, which the charity claimed were designed to “confront superficial judgments and prejudices and challenged the viewer to reject stereotypes”, the advertising standards authority (ASA) ruled that two of the adverts should not be reused. Indeed, they found that one ad reinforced negative stereotypes around race, and that another was ‘misleading’ in its ‘truthfulness’. The charity’s stated aims for the ads, and their reception at the ASA were clearly dramatically misaligned. How, one wonders, does a wealthy charity with plenty of communications resources and PR expertise end up creating an ad campaign perceived to achieve precisely the opposite of its mandate to reject stereotypes and challenge the status quo?
The issue goes much deeper than Kids Company, or an isolated campaign or even the racism, which was the focus of the issue with the campaign cited. I am not in any way undermining the relevance of deep intersectionality of institutionalised racism, but suggesting that charities have a wider complicated relationship with how to portray vulnerability in children and young people; a relationship which is deeply embedded with the necessity of getting the ads seen by a receptive, and donation willing audience. We (the great anonymous ‘we’) don’t want to see vulnerability and deprivation that looks muted or subtle, we want it to be as dramatic as possible. We do not want to see parents who look as distraught as their children, we want violent perpetrators of physical violence while tiny children cower in corners. We don’t want to see pictures of bright kids in college spending their break times on the phone, trying to navigate the labyrinth maze of housing benefits phone lines at the local authority, we want lone homeless kids walking down empty roads. We do not want to see abuse in middle class, nicely decorated homes, we want to see it in needle strewn bedsits. Charities, under huge pressure to fundraise, need to create campaigns that work; that make people pick up the phone and donate. Its Comic Relief 80’s Ethopia heydey but with the front line repositioned (and no one wants it repositioned too close to their front door).
This is not to say that violence, homelessness and abuse like that depicted in those ads does not happen. It is just that the majority of families and children who need help (and often desperately) don’t look like those in the adverts. And the mass media who spread stereotypes in the name of an oppositional mandate of truthfulness are rarely helpful. There is little the charities can really do (though I agree with the ASA’s verdict on those Kids Company’s Ads), the vulnerability porn of these ads are the blameless carriers of our great distaste for the ‘uncanny’ (outside of Stranger Things, at least). What perhaps we really do not like is the feeling that our own homes or communities could be haunted by what we want to see as unfamiliar. While we are slightly over our weird colonial desire to see the whole of Africa as one mass of techni-colour famine in need of white rescue and gift boxes, we have not yet got sophisticated enough to apply a lens to what we want to see in our own complicated communities. Shock! Economic deprivation is not the only indicator of deprivation; children of doctors get mental health issues, wealthy and educated people might abuse their children, really upset kids often hold it all in amazingly well until they get to university (and yes they do often go to university), many parents are scared of being hit by their children. But we like a narrative with an easy rescue; and myths and stereotypes that play to our instincts of familiar enough to be identifiable, whilst unfamiliar enough to be far from our own hearths, mean that we also get to collude in the happy ending. The kid who got so much better, the kid who felt safe again, the bad parent who (off screen) got found out and punished. It’s not that there are no happy endings, but just like the narrative myths that they stem from, they don’t often look like that. They take a long time, they are difficult, things often get worse before they get better. They normally involve a Kafkaesque narrative of weird bureaucratic high jinx. So, do give money to those great charities, because they mostly do great work. But don’t think that’s what a vulnerable child always looks like, because otherwise you might miss the one you know, the one you are, and not even know you’ve blinked and missed them. We need to find the kids and families who have got lost in the system, not lost in the flicker of televisual guilt.