Zack Gross
Zack Gross

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What's in a Name to Grab Public Attention? Everything!

Brandon Sun “Small World” Column,  Monday, September 21 / 15

Zack Gross

The impact of news coverage has recently retaught all of us that putting a name to an issue, especially of the victim in what otherwise would seem like a blur of incidents, helps to grab the attention and interest of the general public.  Cases in point include a lion that none of us had heard of before and a small child who was part of a faceless mass of people.

Cecil the Zimbabwean lion was recently killed by US dentist Walter Palmer in what became a celebrated cause.  To that point, few people may have been aware of the terrible toll that poaching endangered wild animals takes on our magnificent species of large cats, elephants, rhinos and even giraffes!  Seriously, folks, how can someone get their jollies out of killing a giraffe?

My family and I had the privilege of participating in a safari in East Africa a year ago.  The only shooting we did was with a camera but it is a fact that you can sign up to hunt down wildlife including at night and by truck.  We were entranced by the beauty of the animals we saw and impressed by the efforts being made to oppose poaching in national parks.

Putting a name on the lion made the public more able to recognize (something human?) in the big cat and to oppose this type of killing.  Certainly, putting a name on the dentist meant that he was inundated with strong complaint about his particular pastime, to the extent that he had to close up shop and hide out for a while.

Aylan Kurdi was a little boy in the wrong place at the wrong time.  Had he been growing up in Brandon, he might have someday become a great musician, teacher or doctor.  We  became aware of Aylan when his photo, lying dead on a beach, was circulated around the world.  To that point, while we may have been aware of the great migration crisis affecting the Middle East, Western Asia and Europe, we certainly didn’t identify with it.

Putting a name on Aylan has Canadians and people around the world offering to donate to refugee charities, and take in migrants to their countries and homes.  Maybe instead of the blur of people we don’t know who are in trouble for reasons we don’t entirely understand, Aylan helps us see something (human?) in this tragedy that we must respond to. 

Now it is an election issue.  Now it is mainstream.  Now we care, at least for a little while.

My wife works in the health care system.  It is an overwhelmed sector that does its best to serve the public, but maybe after a while it’s hard to separate the individuals out from the welter of needs and demands.

She tells me that an effective way to highlight the care needed for your loved one is to put family photos in their room.  Find a way to put a name to them.  Show that they are important to someone.  It’s not that people in the system don’t care.  It’s just that we all suffer from overload and need someone to individualize a situation for us. 

In fair trade, an effective way to sell our products to is establish a connection between the consumer and the artisan.  So much of what we buy is mass produced – what was the name of the person on the assembly line who did the most work on your car, your computer or your new pair of jeans?

If you walk into a Ten Thousand Villages or other fair trade shop, you are given the chance to support a particular village, family or individual by purchasing their basket, tablecloth, carving or food product.  Again, by putting a name on them, we create interest and support.

Some would say that we should be on top of these situations and ready to help whether or not we have our heart strings tugged by a name or a photo.  But that may be unrealistic.  To bring a global concern to the forefront when everyone is dealing with their own life’s challenges already, maybe you need to do something extraordinary.

When Cecil’s name came out, one of the criticisms was that we don’t get as excited about human misery but rather glom onto a celebrity lion’s situation.  So, ironically, we were handed Aylan, a photographed, named child, hunted down by circumstance, failed policies and the desperation of poverty.

Cecil and Aylan are the losers.  Hopefully, their cases will make us better people.


Zack Gross is a former Executive Director of the Marquis Project in Brandon.


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