Lauren Agresti
Piece of Mind

Credit: Lauren Agresti / The Daily Pennsylvanian

We all have first world problems. In fact, I just chugged my pumpkin spiced latte way too fast. Now, I’m jittery, overheated and nauseous. I’m going to look like a hot, sweaty mess for the rest of the day. The logical next step is to tweet about it, right?

Not so fast. This past week, DDB New York — a marketing communications network owned by Omnicom Group — partnered with WATERisLIFE, a non-profit addressing the global shortage of drinkable water, to create a campaign challenging the humor of the first world problem.

In a one-minute viral video entitled “First World Problems Anthem,” Haitian men, women and children are shown reading #FirstWorldProblem tweets. One boy, for example, looks into the camera and says, “I hate it when I tell them no pickles and they still give me pickles.”

DDB’s blog explains that the campaign “is designed to raise awareness of the plight of those less fortunate and put our privileged lives into perspective, with the ultimate dual goal of ending #FirstWorldProblems altogether and raising money to fight world thirst.”

One thing the video has done indisputably well is spark a conversation. The entire internet has its knickers in a twist over whether #FirstWorldProblems are ironic and self-aware or just completely insensitive.

While watching the 60-second clip, my internal dialogue was on fire: did I just joke about how much it sucks when my iPad gets smudgy? I think so. Was that funny? I don’t even know. What is funny? I feel attacked. Maybe I’m a horrible person.

I proceeded to consult everyone around me for their reactions. I didn’t pass the video along because I felt especially touched or inclined to donate. I just wanted to discuss.

Six of my friends shared “Anthem” on Facebook and I forced countless others to watch it, but none of us gave any money (I asked). We all wanted to talk about the way it made us feel, which is pretty self-involved and arguably, doesn’t help anyone.

Like many awareness campaign, “Anthem” effectively generated a buzz and prompted us to think twice, but failed to do so in a measurable way or produce monetary results.

Call me crazy, but as someone who thinks everyone should have clean drinking water, I couldn’t help wonder whether this campaign might fall short in reaching its secondary goal of fundraising and what could be done from here. Awareness matters, but money talks.

Then I read a study on charitable giving in “Psychology and Marketing,” which clarified a few things. Apparently, guilt and empathy work in concert, along with our perceptions of self-efficacy, to produce a mental state conducive to giving.

By creating an uncomfortable dichotomy between “us” and “them,” the video places too much emphasis on inciting guilt rather than fostering empathy, which poses a significant psychological barrier to raising money.

This tactical error is not uncommon. It was recently seen in the Occupy movement. Occupiers pointed out an important and systemic problem by dividing the population into two groups: the wealthy, greedy 1 percent who perpetuate a growing trend of income inequality, and the 99 percent, which included everyone else suffering the consequences.

“Anthem” seeks to put a spotlight on an equally pressing problem by drawing a line between people who are fortunate and people who are in need. People who have “fake” problems and people who have “real” problems. The victims of an unfunny joke and the perpetrators of the offense.

In both cases, you’re supposed to first feel terrible for associating with privilege, then do something for the “the good guys.” While the former works out, the latter … not so much.

The answer? Bridge the gap between the first and third worlds. No, I have never lived without access to clean water, but that doesn’t mean I can’t empathize with “real problems.”

We all feel pain, fall violently ill, lose loved ones and experience betrayal. Suffering is — and always has been — the universal human condition.

Though our problems differ in their intensity and frequency, we are all, in many ways, the same. An advertisement that highlights this fact has the power to mobilize potential donors and activists. So let’s go.

DDB New York and WATERisLIFE, congratulations, you got our attention by dividing us. Now, please, bring it home by bringing us back together.

Lauren Agresti is a College senior from Fulton, Md. Her email address is laurenagresti@gmail.com. Follow her @lagresti. “Piece of Mind” appears every Thursday.

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