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David Girling Headshot

Can Ricky Gervais's Irony Save the World?

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With the recent video's by Mama Hope and Africa for Norway it seems like there is a new genre of ironic videos being produced for International Development. The first ridicules Hollywood stereotypes of African Men and the other is a parody of Band Aid/Live Aid. On the eve of Comic Relief Day I stumbled across a video by Ricky Gervais sketch from the 2007 event. I don't want to spoil the sketch, so here's your opportunity to watch it first - see below.

So what did you think? I think it's very funny and 1,728 people on YouTube seem to agree. The video has had over 500,000 views and has only received 55 'dislikes'. I sat down and read all of the comments on YouTube to see if I could get a sense of what people think it is trying to achieve? The vast majority of the comments are merely praising Ricky and others for their "comic genius". Jamie Oliver has won over a new audience, with several people saying they didn't like him before, but now they've changed their mind. I'm sure that the sketch encouraged people to pick up the phones and donate some money. But did it change anyone's perceptions about international development and the lives of people in other countries?

Out of the 400-500 comments that I read there are only a handful of people discussing the content of the video other than its "comic genius". Comments like "What he's getting at is the celebrity's [sic] do these appeals just to raise their profile. Ricky Gervais does a lot for charity and gives a lot to charity." and "Genius. Gervais subtly deals with the whole concept of Comic Relief and how it is ironically saturated by self-indulgent and outrageous tokenism. Underlying this piece, for me, is the message: millions of pounds isn't the answer and NEVER will be; human action is of more value than every [sic] can be."

In her recent academic book, 'The Ironic Spectator, Lilie Chouliaraki argues that humanitarian communication has shifted from being based on pity (e.g. the images of distant suffering used during Live Aid), to being based on irony (the spectacle of others like 'us' to elicit self-reflection). She suggests that this shift is a result, in part, of attempts to overcome a perceived sense of compassion fatigue amongst the public (generated through previous 'poverty porn' campaigns). It is also due to the explosion of mass self publication that social media has enabled.

If the reaction to the above Ricky Gervais video is anything to go by, it looks as though irony does (or at least can) work. The three videos in this blog have received 500,000, 1,000,000 and 2,000,000 views and feedback on YouTube is extremely positive. But whether these videos are wholly effective depends on their goals. If their goal is to encourage views / clicks or donations, then we might regards them as successful. But do they really provide us with a meaningful way of engaging with the other? Do these videos merely highlight the seemingly irresolvable tension in humanitarian communications between fundraising and raising awareness?