I was on a panel with Anna White of essential.org last week at a conference called “Grantmakers for Health”. We were both talking about the power of networks to create social change. Always the techno-pied piper, I talked about ways grantmakers and health organizations could use wikis, blogs and folksonomic services like del.icio.us to improve their overall hapiness.
But the highlight of the panel for me was listening to Anna talk about Essential.org’s strategy of documenting the international networks that are used by multinational companies to effect change in the developing world… and then attacking their weak points! Anna’s portfolio at Essential is “tobacco control”, and she works with dozens of small, underfunded antismoking organizations in countries like Nigeria. These organizations, often with budgets in the tens or hundreds of dollars, find themselves going up against major multinational corporations like British American Tobacco, which is aggresively expanding into new markets as developing nations regulate tobacco out of existence.
And, every so often, they win one.
In March 2003, BAT, advertising their Rothman’s brand, launched a major promotional package called “Experience It!”, a remake of the German and Swiss “Rothmans Experience it Cinema Tour”. Theorizing that Nigerians, despite hosting a phenomenally productive and powerful local film industry, hadn’t had the chance to see films the way “Hollywood intended them to be seen”, BAT built an air-conditioned 500 seat movie theater with a 35 milimeter projection and American-style theater concessions lobby. A 500 naira ticket (about $ ) allowed you to attend two or three recently released Hollywood films on a 12 x 6 meter screen. The dome travelled from Lagos to Abuja, Port Harcourt and three other major Nigerian cities. (from an article by Olayiwola Adenji for This Day Online.)
What Olayiwola Adeniji’s glowing article didn’t mention was one of the most surprising aspects of the promotion – hosteses lighting Rothman’s cigarettes and handing them to patrons as they entered the screening domes. Experience Hollywood! Experience smoking!
Realizing that they were unlikely to shame BAT directly (indeed, BAT execs were probably busy promoting whoever came up with this idea…), essential.org took a look at the films that were being screened and quickly discovered they were all recent Warner Brothers releases. So essential.org called WB’s president of International Distribution and asked whether WB had given permission for its films to be used in this context. WB responded that they hand’t given permission and that the films must be “pirated”. So essential.org demanded that WB send a “cease and desist” letter to BAT, as well as issuing press releases making clear that WB did not support handing free, lit cigarettes to Nigerian moviegoers.
At this point, WB balked and began to drag its heels, saying that they had no “timeline” to deal with this admittedly “serious” issue and would essential.org mind backing off. So essential.org went to the press – the LA Times, specifically – and managed to get a great article where a WB spokesperson was quoted as saying “This is not something we would ever condone,” and a BAT representative asserted that they had licensed the films from WB’s South African affiliate – Warner Nu Metro – in a way that was entirely above board.
After the LA Times article, essential.org, along with the three major anti-tobacco groups in Nigeria, launched a fax campaign targetting Warner Brothers’ CEO Barry Meyer. Meyer caved the same day the campaign was launched, and agreed that half the money BAT had paid Warner Nu Metro would be donated to the three Nigerian anti-tobacco groups to support their work.
I’m inspired by the understanding of network theory Essential.org has developed in the course of projects like this one. Despite the temptation to challenge their main opponent – BAT – head to head, they realized how much more effective it was to ask some of BAT’s business partners whether this was really the sort of business they wanted to be engaged in. Because these companies are vast multinationals, it’s possible to attack them in countries where public sympathy is likely to be on the side of the activists (the US) rather than in the countries where the business deals take place. Warner Nu Metro probably thought they’d got a good deal licensing films to BAT, not realizing they’d inadvertently drawn Warner Brothers in the US into a highly visible anti-tobacco debate they had no interest in being part of.
I want to get mainstream media in America to take the developing world seriously and cover Central Asia and Africa. Where’s the weak spot in the news network where we can humiliate and pressure CNN?