When companies co-opt diversity, they cheapen what we stand for

This summer two viral videos close to the heart of GSBTB’s work caught our attention: one produced by Amnesty International, the other by travel website Momondo. GSBTB blog editor Vanessa Ellingham compares the two.

In May, Amnesty International released a video where they partnered up strangers – one refugee and one European – and had them meet for four minutes to stare into each other’s eyes. This was under the premise that “four minutes of eye contact brings people closer to each other better than anything else”.

At GSBTB we look into the eyes of newcomers almost every day and get to know them and their stories, so I was suprised to feel so affected by watching other people do the same thing. Maybe it was the lighting or the rousing music, but this video turned me into a whimpering mess.

The tagline for this video: Look beyond borders.

Just a week later, the travel search engine Momondo released a video that seemed like it was trying to evoke a similar response.

This video got people to talk about their cultural identities, what exactly made them feel British, or French, or Cuban, and then take a DNA test. The results revealed they had more diverse backgrounds than they had expected. Two of the participants peculiarly turned out to be cousins. Many tears were shed.

The video launched Momondo’s campaign, The DNA Journey, along with a competition to win a similar DNA test, and then possibly be chosen to travel to one or all of the nations on your DNA results.

Some of the video participants’ responses felt a little scripted, but I really wanted to believe what I was seeing: people being reminded that the whole world is connected.

I saw family members and friends sharing this video in New Zealand, Australia, Denmark and Germany. It seemed like the video had made a real impact on them. So why did it leave me feeling a little ripped off?

Within a week I had my first answer: the science behind Momondo’s experiment is fundamentally flawed.

Further, the man presented as a DNA expert in the video is not exactly that, and many of the participants are actors. The whole thing is phony.

It seems like Momondo saw the increasing trendiness of cultural diversity and tried to jump on the bandwagon. But instead, they jumped the shark.

The premise on which the video hangs may not be real, but cultural diversity and the struggles of otherness that come with it are very real.

Momondo is employing the very thing that oppresses minorities – difference – packaging it up to push all the right feels, and then using that to direct viewers to its website and drive sales.

Momondo has cheapened the beauty that can be earnestly found in diversity by first, telling a false story, and second, co-opting diversity for profit.

There are two big differences between Momondo’s video and the one produced by Amnesty International.

The first is the intended outcome: the Amnesty video simply asks you to think differently, and consider putting yourself in someone else’s shoes. While the Momondo video may spread a thoughtful message, the end goal is still profit.

The other difference is in the nuances of the messaging: Momondo suggests we’re more connected to the rest of the world than we might think. This is about us and our place in the world. Whereas the Amnesty video asks us to look beyond ourselves to others and their experiences. Surely this is a stronger message of unity.

And yet, money talks.

At the time of writing, the original Momondo video had been viewed on Facebook 28 million times. The Amnesty International video? Just 3 million views.

This is possibly because Momondo was able to spend more on promoting the video via Facebook advertising than Amnesty, but I’m more interested in which video created the most impact. How many minds did it change?

No word yet on how Facebook could measure the social impact of a post, but the company has explained its frequently-updated algorithms as an attempt to feed users less crap and more of what matters to them. Fewer cat videos (I know, sorry!) sounds like good news for NGOs with positive, inclusive messages to spread.

Doing some real good

Profit aside, businesses still have ample opportunities to do good in their communities, whether that be through donating to a cause, sponsoring a campaign, or lending their staff to volunteer work as part of their corporate social responsibility strategy.

Yes, these activities are all likely to have a positive impact on business, but they can also do real, tangible good.

The team at Momondo could have done so much better if they really wanted to.

What if they had used the money set aside for competition winners’ trips to instead fund the reuniting of five refugee families? What if they had sent three overworked migrant labourers in Dubai on a holiday to visit their families in India?

What if Momondo had made a donation to a migrant support organization in Denmark, where Momondo is based and where refugees face some of the harshest immigration policies in all of Europe?

Any of these actions would have had a real, lasting impact on individuals and families who are the target of xenophobia and migrant abuse, as well as creating awareness of these issues.

I think the team that made the Momondo campaign probably had really good intentions; I reckon their hearts are in the right place. But in the end, their job is to sell product.

Their presentation of assorted ethnicities doesn’t match up with the vision of cultural diversity I see when I step out of our office on Lenaustraße and into multi-kulti Neukölln. The image of diversity I see in Momondo’s video reads like acceptable diversity: affluent English speakers claiming cultural difference like social currency or even street cred.

Tacked on to the end of Momondo’s campaign landing page, almost like an afterthought, is the vague explanation that “Momondo supports CISV International, a global not-for-profit organization dedicated to educating and inspiring action for peace”. It is not clear how much, or in what way, they support this NGO.

Audiences demand authenticity

The comments section below the Momondo video on Youtube is full of viewers saying they don’t buy the story, and then other viewers complaining that this undermines the message of unity.

I think they’re both right. In an age where anyone with a smartphone can produce media content, audiences seek out – and respond to – authenticity.

For this generation, realness is capital, from makeup-free selfies to the #nofilter hashtag. Audiences won’t put up with being patronized when something more ‘real’ is out there waiting for them.

Here at GSBTB we’ve currently got ‘VIDEO’ on our media wish list, because we know what rich, evocative stories can be produced in that medium. It’s just something we don’t have the budget for right now.

In the meantime, we’re proud that when we do post stories about our community on Facebook, they evoke genuine human responses of connection and compassion. It seems like we’ve got what brands like Momondo are still looking for.

Vanessa Ellingham does communication work for Give Something Back to Berlin and runs this very blog.

Top image: a screenshot from Momondo’s video for The DNA Journey.