Web Animation and Advocacy

by Guest Blogger, 2/17/2002

In 1953, the Warner Brothers' animation studio unleashed a skinny, big-toothed, mouse upon the world in a short featured titled "Cat-Tails for Two". It would be another two years before a revised version of that figure made its more familiar appearance in its second (and eponymous) feature-- Speedy Gonzales. Around that time, legendary cartoon vocalist Mel Blanc added his unique stylings for the remainder of Speedy's most famous cartoons, with his signature "Arriba! Arriba! Andale! Andale! YEEHAH!" exclamation.

There is, arguably, no other mainstream animated character that has generated such sustained resentment among Mexican Americans. It is curious to see the degree to which fans of the mouse go to great lengths to point out his cunning, intelligence, sense of fair play, skill, and sense of humor. Whether he was paired against Sylvester the Cat, or with Daffy Duck (don't ask)-- or with his cousin (we're not making this up) Slowpoke Rodriguez, the slowest mouse in all Mexico-- the record would seem to suggest that Speedy Gonzales almost invariably wins whatever situation with which he is confronted, all the while playing against rampant cultural stereotypes of Mexicans and Mexican-Americans as aimless, lazy, and slow-witted.

The record gets dubious, however, when weighed against the cartoons' suggestion that Speedy-- and his fellow mice-- are gluttonous womanizers under the influence of alcohol (or other substances). There are also artifacts, like Pat Boone's eponymous 1962 hit song, featuring Mel Blanc in character, as well as Blanc's subsequent use of a similar vocal characterization in 1968 for snack-food giant Frito-Lay's "Frito Bandito" animated long-tailed rat, which stole many a Frito-Lay Corn Chips. Such manifestations make it difficult to think that the creators' intentions were so noble and honorable.

Despite being regarded as the fastest mouse in all of Mexico, Speedy Gonzales' presence has been significantly reduced since the early-1980s. His last role of note was in the 1996 film "Space Jam"-- in which he was not given a speaking part, out of fear of offending Latinos. A number of cable channels have dropped his cartoons from all but the occasional showing for the same reason.

Most possibly as a response to the lack of accurate cultural reflections, a web community for Latino animators and short film creators was developed in October 2000. dvLATINO, features animations by and/or about Latinos, launched as a means for up and coming creative talent to share their works online. It is a hosting service for streaming media, with commentary and advice on the larger film industry as well as technical information, and online message boards.

By utilizing an online channel, the costs of marketing and distribution are cut significantly for artists and producers, with the added benefit of making content available to a much larger audience than might be able to attend niche film festivals or screenings. More importantly, it provides a forum for images, messages, and perspectives often missing from mainstream media-- and context in which that content can be judged on its own merits.

Needless to say, then, that cartoons and animation do have the power to incite powerful reactions of offense and pride, depending upon who creates them, and to what end. Colors, movement, facial expressions, action, movement can be effective in attracting a viewer's attention in ways words cannot, for telling stories and sharing information in a manner that taps into a basic set of shared social, cultural, or political assumptions. If done right, visuals and animations can also evoke desired responses among different populations, despite their different experiences and backgrounds, without requiring lengthy exposition or background information. For all of its benefits, visual content-- especially animations and movies-- aren't widespread among nonprofits. Why?

Let's start with the basic questions of accessibility, which organizations have mistakenly assumed to limit their options for presenting information. Those with visual impairments can't see visual content. When it is employed, unless there is a word for image direct transcript of the action or visual depiction in place, the effectiveness is lost on a valuable segment of the online population. Visual content doesn't require sound, but when sound is present, there is more often than not, a disinclination to accompany that content with captioning. But there is no rule that says content has to be presented only as plain boring text, and that portions of that text might not benefit from a person's voice. It is precisely those touches that help audiences connect with messages an organization seeks to convey.

There are also organizational concerns around of cost, resources, talent, and time, which affect different groups in different combinations. Just because an organization has the technology tools for digital video, streaming media, or animation, does not mean it has the staff or time to plan its use.

Public service announcements, including satirical advertising, or other forms of media advocacy are sometimes deemed too edgy or controversial or offensive to commercial sponsors. Other times, advocacy messages are too costly to produce and distribute through that same media. So this content is increasingly embracing online multimedia space.

The Media

Users access online multimedia by way of plug-ins, which are extensions for browsers to access specialized content and streaming media. One element of web animations useful to the viewer is that if a required plug-in is not currently installed, browsers are prompted to download the latest version automatically without much required.

In general, there are two big heavyweights when it comes to authoring tools for online multimedia: Flash and Shockwave (both owned by Macromedia).

Shockwave content is produced through a tool called Director, which was originally used to develop presentations for CD-ROMs used in kiosks, but re-engineered to develop Web content. Flash was created as a Web-centered technology from the outset. The difference between the two really turns on the type of graphics they produce.

Shockwave creates bitmap (or raster) images, which are made up of tiny dots, each of which fills up individual bits of data, depending upon how much color is used, and sharply the dots are rendered. The two most popular bitmap formats are GIF and JPEG, which represent static (non- animated) images. Keep in mind that bitmaps have to literally represent the precise color of each bit (pixel). So in order to save space, GIFs and JPEGs compress the information. GIFs reduce the number of colors available, while JPEGs define each color used through complex formulas. GIFs tend to be used for graphics while JPEGs are used for pictures.

In order to create small animations, a sequence of GIFs is often patched together, to create images like animated icons. Because the size of these animated images are as big as the sum total of the GIFs used, they can become large over time. Another option is to create MPEG movie files, which use formulas like JPEGs to reduce repetition, can store sound and video content. Since MPEGs, however, consist of multiple frames, like movies, the files can get big as well.

Flash and similar tools create vector (or object oriented) graphics, which utilize algorithms to represent individual shapes in a graphic. The reason to draw this distinction (sorry) is that vectors retain their shape and quality no matter how they are scaled, while bitmaps need more tending as they are stretched or shrunk. Thus vector images make for smaller file sizes. Flash, however, can also utilize bitmap images as well-- but for the most part uses vector approaches to graphics. Flash, additionally, was created from the outset to incorporate streaming media, rather than treating it as an extension, like Shockwave.

Since Macromedia owns both Flash and Shockwave/Director, there has been better integration between the two products, although Flash content can only be incorporated in Shockwave productions, not vice versa.

If there is a distinction to draw, overall, Flash content lives up to its name-- it begins playing as soon as a browser accesses it and can be integrated into a web page. The reason for the almost-instantaneous playback (depending upon whether you open the on or offline, and at what speed), is the use of smaller vector files. Since vector images store formulas that are reused among similar images, the file size is pared down even further, ensuring a quicker playback.

Shockwave, which has limited vector functionality, uses bitmap-centered technology, so movies, by comparison, takes time to load and play. Shockwave files show their product ad at the beginning, does not integrate seamlessly into web pages, and requires effort to stream. Shockwave, however, has more capacity to create interactive animations and features, incorporating a much wider range of content than Flash. Flash can basically generate open ended text fields for forms, mouse rollovers, action buttons, and basic e-commerce functions.

In case your organization is still confused by the choices, consider that while the two products gradually are becoming identical twins, Flash technology is cheaper than Shockwave/Director-- and open-source.

Nonprofits' Sound and Vision
Though the barriers to accessing tools seems to diminish on a continual basis, there is overall a reluctance by the sector to embrace media forms which many see as a luxury at best, or a distraction with respect to their core activity. There are, however, nonprofits utilizing these tools for advocacy, challenging previous assumptions about the inaccessibility of new media by small and mid-size organizations. You have, undoubtedly, seen more than a few nonprofit examples Flash or Shockwave at work.

  • Back in September, the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids used Flash animation for a short film to raise awareness around a Philip Morris to the Czech Republic that argued the benefits of early deaths from smoking. The movie itself is a kitschy, yet darkly humorous, short film that engages the viewer. At the conclusion, viewers are prompted to take action by sending an e-mail message, phone call, or letter to the White House to continue vigorous activity on the federal government's lawsuit against the tobacco industry.
  • Amnesty International features a parody of the popular DeBeer's diamond jewelry commercials highlighting abuses towards diamond mine workers
  • The Save Our Environment Coalition a collection of national environmental advocacy organizations, generated three popular short animated films, attacking a sprawl effort in Colorado via a Godzilla meets South Park 50s horror film; countering President Bush's energy plan through the use of a monkey, and encouraging greater voter turnout among environmental advocates last November using an optimistic bear.

Washington, DC-based Free Range Graphics, is behind each of the aforementioned films, in addition to other electronic media advocacy for progressive nonprofits. We recently had an opportunity to talk with co-founder Jonah Sachs and account manager K. McArthur to find out more about what they are doing to help nonprofits find new and innovative ways of connecting advocacy messages with wider audiences.

McArthur, a former nonprofit development director, states that groups that take time to invest in a catchy, attractive campaign with short animation as one consistently identifiable component, conveying a short, easily remembered message, have a potentially powerful tool for organizing and engaging awareness by those normally resistant to text- based e-mail appeals. She cites three reasons why:

  • The animations are not huge files, and can be stored easily on a web server, or distributed in an e-mail message. The small size, coupled with the viral, word-of-mouth nature of the web makes the distribution of content easier.
  • Viral distribution is seeded with targeted outreach, based on key demographic factors relative to an organization's mailing list. Since the list of original recipients includes active supporters of the organization and/or its message, they are more likely to view and pass along information on that content, creating a buzz.
  • Viewers of online media actively elect to view that content, so the viewer is more likely to remember the message. Moreover, online multimedia campaigns provide a clearly identified set of actions to undertake at the conclusion of the viewing. This makes it more likely to engage a potential supporter, than any form of activity that entails lag time. For example, sending an e-mail message, which has a phone number to call, introduces a delay between connection and action, such that the littlest distraction can delay the viewer taking action.

Whether web animations are cost-effective for nonprofit advocacy depends on a range of factors. On average, Sachs, a former journalist, points out, animations and short films may not cost as much as you think. He cites a figure of US$10-20,000 to mount a targeted direct mail campaign of 10,000 people-- including list development, design, and mailing costs, which can yield a 1.5% response rate (150 people) or better.

For roughly half the amount-- US$5-7,000-- the firm designed a 90-second Flash animation for the Brady Campaign to Prevent Handgun Violence in protest against the National Rifle Association that was distributed to 14,000 addresses on the organization's e-mail activist list. The movie was seen 35,000 times, with 7,000 responses on the take action button. A total of 3,000 persons sent letters to NRA president Charlton Heston, 1000 viewers redistributed information through the site to another person, and approximately 1,400 new subscriptions to the organization's newsletter were generated.

Another major player in this field is RealImpact. This is the progressive nonprofit technology offshoot of RealNetworks, the company behind the popular RealPlayer streaming technology tools (which can carry Flash and other media formats). The Seattle, Washington-based firm provides uses streaming technology to help nonprofits develop content-rich sites and online interaction mechanims (including online donations, special online events, web-based advocacy and participation tools)-- at cost. Hosting services are also available for large-scale nonprofit content distribution, in the event groups want to avoid overload traffic on their own servers.

Some examples of RealImpact's handiwork are available online, including work for Amnesty International, Defenders of Wildlife, Human Rights Watch, the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy's WTO Watch, and the Union of Concerned Scientists.

Ultimately, the effectiveness of online animation assumes that online media is part of a coordinated series of actions, including grassroots organizing, policy monitoring, engagement of institutional actors, and careful attention and research to target audiences. The risks, according to both Sachs and McArthur, is that in undertaking an action designed to draw attention to a cause or message, the attention focuses on the activity, rather than the message-- and that the attention is one of curiosity around a novelty item, rather than focused attention and action on the message.

Resources Cited
"Speedy Gonzales" (1962)
Pat Boone
dvLATINO

Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids Flash animation
Amnesty International
DeBeer's advertisement parody (Amnesty International)
Save Our Environment Coalition
Sprawzilla
President Bush/Energy Monkey
Bear Votes
Free Range Graphics
Brady Campaign to Prevent Handgun Violence
RealImpact
RealImpact client portfolio
Defenders of Wildlife
Human Rights Watch
WTO Watch(Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy)
Union of Concerned Scientists