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August 2002
Striking Back: Activists Go High-Tech

By Jonah Sachs



Conflict Diamonds

From ‘Conflict Diamonds’ for Amnesty International

In the spring of 2001, Amnesty International set aside a few thousand dollars to take on the entire diamond industry. That’s about the cost of one small diamond, so the industry didn’t feel terribly threatened by the prospect of the upcoming campaign. Then they saw what a few thousand dollars can produce today. And so did more than a hundred thousand potential diamond buyers.

The campaign set out to alert the world to the dirty practices of diamond mining in Africa. Many of the diamonds that wind up on American engagement rings are pulled from the earth in Sierra Leone, home of a brutal gang of rebels known as the Revolutionary United Front (RUF), which has been waging a civil war for years to gain control of the country. The “dirtiness” of the diamonds is somewhat cyclical: the RUF wants arms to continue the war; they sell diamonds to purchase the weapons; to get the diamonds, they enslave fellow countrymen to mine them. Their trademark is to butcher people by hacking off their limbs. If the diamond industry did not buy these jewels, the RUF wouldn’t be able to purchase the weapons that fuel their war. If people demanded cruelty-free diamonds, the industry would change.

The campaigners believed that if people knew how much cruelty was caused by the purchase of their beloved jewels, momentum could be built for a “Clean Diamonds Act” requiring that all diamonds be certified and ensuring that their sources were legitimate. The diamond industry said it would support such a step, but at the time of the campaign launch, in the fall of 2001, billions of dollars of illegal diamonds still continued to flow into the U.S.

Traditional awareness-raising methods, like direct mail, wouldn’t have given the campaign the massive exposure it needed. So the organizers decided to try something new. Partnering with Free Range Graphics, a progressive design firm in Washington, DC, Amnesty produced a short, animated Internet video. It was a spoof on the well-known diamond commercial depicting an engagement proposal, featuring two shadow hands with dramatic classical string music blaring in the background.

A short video viewed easily via the Internet, known as a Flash iMovie, was created with the recognizable soundtrack and familiar hands. This time, the woman’s hand refuses the ring being offered and the viewer is transported back to where the diamonds had originally come from. Animated shadows convey the brutality that was a direct consequence of the diamond mining which would eventually produce the ring.

At the time, these Web cartoons were a relatively untested medium. Everyone in the business knows that you can expect about a 0.1 percent return rate on a direct mail campaign; you can expect to spend about $.66 per response. But Flash iMovies are far less predictable. As it turns out, that is most often a very good thing.

When an organization creates an iMovie, they begin by distributing it to an email list, just like direct mailings. The people on the list receive a message that directs them to a Web site which hosts the video. These videos use Flash technology, which allows real-time animation and sound to be streamed easily over the Internet—even over a modem. At the end of the video, visitors are asked to sign an online petition and to distribute the Web site to their friends. For many users, this is their first encounter with Internet movies, which generates considerable excitement. When people pass on the message, viewership begins to grow exponentially. The organization then reaches thousands of sympathetic people previously unknown to them (the most sought after audience). An initial viewership of 5,000 can turn into 100,000 virtually overnight, and the movie takes on a life of its own.

Now, Internet marketers have learned something very interesting about friend-to-friend distribution, known as “the viral effect.” It seems that Internet users are happy to pass on entertaining Web items, but are unwilling to do so if they feel they are advertising to their friends. This has confounded corporate marketers who wish to sell products this way. But it has not hampered the efforts of progressive non-profits. Sure, silly cartoons (like the famous hamster dance) are still more likely to go viral than something serious like dirty diamonds. But to the audience non-profits are most trying to reach—those concerned with social justice, the environment and progressive change, for example—the insertion of a message into Web entertainment actually increases the likelihood that the piece will be passed on. It’s not a guaranteed formula, but it does seem that the right mix of enjoyable, unique content and strong, simple yet progressive messaging will consistently launch an iFilm into viral distribution.

So how did the diamond campaign fare? Within the first weekend of the film’s launch, 14,000 new people had joined the organization’s mailing list. After a couple of weeks over 50,000 people had taken action. Still online, the film has been viewed by several hundred thousand people to date ( Its success and popularity were so apparent that the organization reinvested in the project, distributing the movie by CD-ROM to the entire U.S. Congress. Most importantly, the success of the campaign contributed to the passage of the “Clean Diamonds Act” by the House of Representatives in November 2001.
Remember the estimated cost of $.66 per response for a direct mail campaign? The diamonds campaign wound up costing about $.01 per response, saving more than a few small diamonds’ worth in the process.

Seeing the success of the diamond campaign and other Free Range hits—like Working Asset’s “Lady Liberty” cartoon (all Free Range Flash films can be seen at, which focused on the civil rights curtailments after September 11—dozens of non-profits have approached Free Range looking for similar exposure. Based on the benefits outlined above, it would seem an obvious choice for any campaign. In reality, it’s not. Certain attributes of the diamond case study typify the right kind of campaign to take advantage of Flash technology. If you want to work with this medium in your fight for a more just, sustainable world, consider the following:

• Internet Responses are Cheap: In the old days, getting ten thousand signatures on a petition meant something—they were hard to obtain and thus valuable. But the Internet makes it so easy to take action that those you target are less likely to take emailed actions seriously.

• Impressions are Valuable: On the flip side of the coin, campaigns that are centered on spreading the word are perfect for iFilms. If you’re organizing a boycott or trying to embarrass a company for lousy practices, iFilms are an extremely powerful way of packaging a message and making a deep impression on viewers.

• Cartoons are Not Dissertations: iFilms are best for getting the basics of the situation across to viewers. They work when you introduce a broad population to something they haven’t yet heard about. They don’t work when you target a knowledgeable audience with specific, technical information. That being said, a simple cartoon can lead viewers to a more in-depth Web site.

• iFilms Can Sell an Idea, Not an Organization: As mentioned above, friends don’t advertise to friends, so if you’re planning on touting the merits of your organization, forget about it. If, however, you are talking about the merits of an argument your organization cares about, then an iFilm may be perfect.

Jonah Sachs
is co-founder of Free Range Graphics, a Washington, DC-based design firm that aims to assist progressive activists with advocacy campaigns and outreach. To learn more, visit or call (202) 234-5613.



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