May 23 is Red Nose Day in the United States.
March 15 was Red Nose Day in the United Kingdom.
Both are charity events involving red foam noses sold as part of fundraising campaigns to fight child poverty around the world.
But this year, there was some controversy in the U.K., with charges that photos of BBC journalist Stacey Dooley, holding a Ugandan boy, perpetuated the white-savior complex. The photo was taken on a trip to Uganda to film a documentary for the British charity Comic Relief, the sponsor of Red Nose Day.
And in the U.S., a series of prizes has raised questions about the use of celebrity in charitable campaigns — for example, if you donate $25 to $5,000, you’re entered in a lottery to win a free trip to London for a Mumford & Sons concert in director Richard Curtis’ living room, with food “provided by” actress Carey Mulligan and Curtis’ wife, Emma Freud, a British broadcaster. Curtis is co-founder of Comic Relief.
Before we get to the criticisms, it’s helpful to recap the history of this event.
Comic Relief started Red Nose Day in 1985 in the U.K., where it’s an every-other-year event and has raised $1.2 billion so far.
In 2015, the event crossed over to the U.S., where it has become an annual event, with $150 million raised in its first four years.
Part of the appeal of Red Nose Day is that it makes people feel good, says David Bishai, a professor who specializes in economics and public health at Johns Hopkins University. “The red nose doesn’t drag you into the dark side of the poor, showing you children with swollen bellies. That’s not fun,” he says. “The [campaigners] say: We understand there’s terrible suffering in the world, and we’re doing something about it.”
The British controversy this year began in February, when Dooley was accused of being a “white savior” for posting on her social media photos of herself from the trip, including the one with a Ugandan boy. No White Saviours, a Ugandan-based charity watchdog group, said Dooley put herself at the center of the narrative and made herself the “hero” of the story.
British Member of Parliament David Lammy continued the conversation in a viral thread on Twitter. “The world does not need any more white saviours,” he wrote of Dooley, adding that Comic Relief’s charity films send “a distorted image of Africa.”
Dooley responded to Lammy on Twitter, writing: “I saw projects that were saving lives with the money.”
According to a spokesperson for Comic Relief U.K., “The photograph that was shared featured a boy who was not part of any appeal film, and it was unfortunate that this single photograph became the focus of such a vital debate over representation in charity fundraising.”
A news report from The Guardian in March suggested that the controversy contributed to a $10 million slump in donations: This year, the total was $80 million, down from $90 million in 2017.
A spokesperson for Comic Relief U.K. told NPR: “We do not equate the difference in income to any one reason. We are very grateful to the public for all the money they donated.”
This is not the first time that Comic Relief U.K. has come under fire for its films and imagery. A 2017 video featuring the pop star Ed Sheeran visiting a Liberian slum was named the “worst charity ad” of that year.
In a March 2018 interview with NPR, the charity said it was adjusting its approach.”We should give the strongest possible voice to people we work with, whether those are people here in U.K. or our work in Africa, because it feels right,” said Ben Maitland, head of national media for Comic Relief.
Martin Scott, a senior lecturer on media and global development at the University of East Anglia, does not think Comic Relief U.K. can sustain the growing levels of criticism that it has been facing in the U.K. press and social media. “If they carry on using the same kind of stories and the same kind of imagery it’s been [using] for the last 20 years, then [Red Nose Day] has probably had its day,” he says.
Despite the controversy, Scott acknowledges that the U.K. charity’s strategy has been “effective in generating money.” He adds, “Telethons and celebrities are not a bad thing — they just need to be used judiciously.”
Asked whether Comic Relief USA would change its own Red Nose Day strategy based on the Dooley incident, a spokesperson responded: “Comic Relief USA is an independent organization [from the U.K. one]. … We continue to strive to deliver our campaign in the best possible way to raise both awareness of the issues and money to help fund critical programs that change vulnerable children’s lives.”
Some of the money raised in the U.S. comes from the $2 that people pay to buy a red nose at Walgreens and Duane Reade: $1.30 is contributed to the Red Nose Day charitable projects.
But there are other ways to give.
The charity has partnered with the fundraising website Omaze to auction off celebrity “dates” to the public. In addition to the “intimate” Mumford & Sons concert, donors can win a breakfast with actress Jodie Whittaker on the set of Doctor Who. And sorry — if you were hoping to meet Tom Hiddleston for a drink in London, that sweepstakes ended!
Scott, the lecturer at the University of East Anglia, says the celebrity auctions are “layers of bad.”
“The celebrity culture and consumerism totally overrides the issue,” he adds.
Scott is the author of a 2014 study titled “The role of celebrities in mediating distant suffering,” which was published in the International Journal of Cultural Studies. “Research has shown us that celebrity involvement does more for the celebrity than it does for the campaign,” he says. “People are likely to remember them more than the nonprofits they were trying to support.”
There’s also a celebrity factor on the two-hour telethon on NBC at 8 p.m. ET on Thursday, including performances by singers Kelly Clarkson and Blake Shelton and comedy from Saturday Night Live star Kate McKinnon and Lilly Singh, host of the upcoming NBC show A Little Late With Lilly Singh.
On the serious side, the program will air a documentary film with Milo Ventimiglia, from This Is Us, as he travels to Nairobi, Kenya, to visit a program that provides housing, education and medical care for poor children.
Donations from the U.S. campaign go to nonprofit organizations like Feeding America, the Boys & Girls Clubs of America, Save the Children and the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria.
Charity Navigator, which rates nonprofits using a four-star evaluation system, has found that most of Red Nose Day’s charity partners have a three- or four-star rating.
And the event definitely has its supporters. “Give them a break,” says Bishai. “I could have been holy about it — but they’re helping Americans think about those less well off in other countries.”