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Washington Post Promotes Dickensian Marketing Experiment on Poor Children

The Washington Post offers readers a chance to watch impoverished children taunted with a cruel choice. (Screenshot)

In America, as a rule, we shame the poor, ignore the poor, blame the poor for being poor, mock the poor and do little to nothing to protect the poor. Increasingly, however, a new trend has emerged: using the poor as props in shoddy “inspirational” viral content. One such effort was recently featured in the Washington Post (12/18/15), and is as bad as such things get:

These Low-Income Kids Were Given a Gift for Their Parents and for Themselves. But They Could Only Keep One.

This was in the “inspired life” section, presumably because this effort is supposed to be inspiring to the viewer who is expected to be surprised by the result:

These kids, who ranged from 6 to 11 years old, belong to the Boys and Girls Club of Metro Atlanta, where 83 percent are from poor families.

Some can’t afford to put up a Christmas tree at home. Their wishes for themselves ranged from a computer to an Xbox 360 to a Barbie house. When asked what they thought their parents would want, one little boy guessed a ring because “she’s never really had a ring.” Another said a television. The next said a watch.

Then the kids were given their dream gift. And the gift for their parents. With both gifts sitting in front of them, the kids were told they could only pick one.

In the end, they all chose to sacrifice what they wanted to make their parent happy.

Much like the popular “homeless guy does the right thing” viral “prank” videos, these PR stunts are fundamentally based on two flawed, rather vulgar premises: 1) that the poor are somehow expected to not be altruistic (otherwise, why not run this experiment at a private boarding school?) and 2) the cheap emotional pornography and shallow moralism these videos offer the average social media consumer outweighs the inherently cruel act of making poor children “choose” between obtaining material possessions they can’t normally have or stripping their parents of the same. The fact that the marketing firm behind the experiment ends up giving the child both gifts is supposed to make it OK, but it doesn’t. This last-minute paternalistic gesture doesn’t justify the voyeuristic act of watching a poor child suffer through such a task for no objectively worthwhile reason.

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To make matters even more cynical, the effort—while in conjunction with the “marketing specialist” at the Atlanta Boys and Girls club—was designed to promote a schlocky, third-rate corporate network called UP TV. A media channel “dedicated to uplifting programming,” it’s owned by $1 billion private equity group, InterMedia Partners. Their senior vice president of marketing, Wendy McCoy, was “amazed” that the poors can be selfless:

Wendy McCoy, UP TV senior vice president of marketing, said the organizers were amazed at the children’s selflessness and “how touched they were to be able to make this choice.”

Poor children subverting the glib assumptions of UP TV’s marketing hacks are not particularly newsworthy, except for the fact that they expose the biases of the morally absent editors at the Washington Post—who somehow thought this cruel experiment merited an uncritical write-up. Indeed, it’s bad enough an overzealous marketing firm in Georgia made such a tone deaf “viral” video; it’s much worse that one of the biggest names in news decided to promote it.

The poor need food, housing, jobs and—not least of all—dignity. Billion-dollar companies playing their plight off the prejudices of the viral video–sharing masses isn’t just in bad taste, it’s a perfect microcosm of how the media covers poverty. Typically, the right-wing press addresses it in cruel fear-mongering or poor-shaming, while the nominally liberal media all too often reduces it to this type of “inspirational” claptrap. But the poor aren’t our props; they’re not the raw material of viral content who, if edited properly, will subvert our “prejudices” and play the role of noble savage. They’re individuals. Human beings. Complex and nuanced.

Indeed, had some of these children told the producers to fuck off, they were keeping the gifts they were promised—as I suspect some edited-out clips showed—all the better. Poverty isn’t a marketing gimmick, it’s a scourge, a cancer and a national shame. The media should be covering this decidedly uninspiring reality, not its exploitation by cynical marketing firms.

This is the world we live in. This is the world we cover.

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Adam Johnson

Adam Johnson

Adam Johnson is a New York-based  journalist, a contributing analyst for, and co-host of the Citations Needed podcast. Follow him on Twitter at @adamjohnsonnyc

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