“Should be required reading in every classroom.”Judith Malina, founder of Living Theater
De Grote Donorshow, a hoax TV program presented as a reality show, stands as one of the most effective and unique public awareness campaigns in recent years. The premise of the show was that a terminally ill woman would donate her kidney to the most worthy person of a group of people needing kidney transplants. She would make her selection based on how the contestants answered a series of questions, much like a dating program. Viewers were able to weigh in via text message on whom they thought should receive the lifesaving kidney.
Even before it was aired, the show provoked much heated discussion. Soon media across the Netherlands and beyond were debating the ethics of waiting lists and the propriety of turning organ donation into public entertainment. On June 1, 2007, when the show finally aired, millions of viewers worldwide tuned in to watch.
The surprising twist to an already spectacular and highly controversial program was that it was all a hoax. Just before the alleged cancer patient was about to choose the lucky recipient of her kidney, the host announced that the “cancer patient” was actually a hired actor. The entire program had been staged to raise awareness about the insufficient number of organ donors in the country. He then announced that the people who were performing as competitors to receive a kidney were, however, real patients awaiting kidney donors.
Within a day, 30,000 donor registration forms were requested. A month after the show aired, 7,300 new donors were registered by the Dutch donor registration. In Denmark alone, 700 citizens registered as donors the day after the program was aired — fifteen times the average on a regular Saturday. The show won an International Emmy for non-scripted entertainment.
This stunt was successful because the TV network used its prestige as a broadcaster to send a powerful political message. The cautionary glimpse at how the future might look forced the viewers to reflect on their own agency as witnesses to the disgusting spectacle of people competing for organ donations.
The stunt worked by breaking the implicit contract between broadcaster and viewer to make clear distinctions between truth and fiction. What justified the prank is that while the show itself wasn’t real, the issues that it addressed were. The act of deception served to expose a very real need that was not being met, with the spectators forced to confront their own agency to address the issue.
The hoax is not only an effective tactic to get an issue on the agenda, it is also capable of causing a type of embarrassment that not only provokes reflection, but forces us to reflect on our most deeply held beliefs and take action. It lures people in and exposes them to a subversive idea when they are most vulnerable. In this case, it also pointed toward a practicalway of responding to the issue it raised.
Researchers and politicians who had been quick to denounce the show and lament its social implications were forced to revisit their initial diagnoses, thus offering useful metareflectionon the event, their own role as commentators, and the future of reality TV. Millions of ordinary viewers were forced to do the same.
A lot of people felt misled after the show, and the trustworthiness of the channel might have suffered, but the positive outcome cannot be denied. So a few questions remain: do the ends justify the means? and how do you weigh competing causes or principles? — both classical activist dilemmas.
The donor show gave journalists around the world an excuse to cover the critical lack of organ donors. Many important issues have the same strategic challenge: they are chronic problems rather than acute crises, and therefore do not live up to the criteria for what makes news. If you add an unexpected twist to a good story with a clear and provocative point, as the Big Donor Show did, you provide the hook the media needs.