A provocative plea from laptop nonprofit

'We're not selling cheese here. If we have to break a couple of eggs to make the omelet, we'll do it.'

By Hiawatha Bray
Globe Staff / December 12, 2008
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The Cambridge nonprofit that supplies basic laptops to poor children has produced a video advertisement with images so disturbing the organization will show it over the Internet, but not on television.

The ad from the One Laptop Per Child Foundation shows images of childhood in developing countries. One scene depicts a little girl as a prostitute; another shows small boys as gun-toting soldiers. Then come gentler images of children using the group's no-frills laptop.

"Nobody said we can't run it, but we passed it by TV stations, and the answer was, if anywhere, maybe cable, but not broadcast," said the Cambridge foundation's chairman, Nicholas Negroponte. The foundation instead released the ad on the Internet, where it can be seen on YouTube and other popular sites.

Released this week, the new ad, called "Skills," is the latest effort by the foundation to get affluent Americans to buy laptops for poor children around the world. The foundation created the XO laptop, a small, rugged computer that costs about $190, in hopes that governments of developing countries would buy them by the millions and give them to children at no charge. A few countries, including Uruguay and Peru, have signed up for the plan, but not as many as the foundation had hoped.

So last year, the foundation launched its Give One Get One program, offering Americans the chance to pay $400 for two of the laptops, one to keep and another to donate to a poor child. The program, which ran during the 2007 holiday season, sold about 185,000 laptops.

This year, the foundation has teamed up with giant Internet merchant, which will handle delivery of the computers. It has also recruited the New York office of Canadian advertising agency Taxi to create ads for the Give One Get One campaign. Working free of charge, Taxi has created three ads for the project, with "Skills" being the edgiest by far.

The spot begins with images of poor children engaged in menial labor. Then another image, shot from the side window of a moving car, shows a scantily dressed girl standing on a darkened street, in a pose that suggests she's a child prostitute.

Next come scenes of small boys loading the magazines of automatic rifles. One boy takes target practice, firing at empty bottles and a military helmet. The child raises the gun in exultation after hitting his targets.

Finally, the ad shows happy children using the foundation's XO laptops. "Children are fast learners," reads a message displayed on screen. "Let's give them the right tools."

Paul Lavoie, Taxi's chairman and chief creative officer, said his own colleagues questioned whether the ad goes too far. "There was some debate, honestly, whether we should release it or not, because it is polarizing," he said.

The agency decided on an Internet-only release, but Lavoie said that if viewers react well to the ad, they might try to get it on TV. Taxi also created a more traditional ad, featuring a sweet-faced girl named Zimi who thanks the donor who provided her with a laptop. The Zimi ad is being broadcast about 50 times a day on TV stations throughout the United States, Negroponte said. The foundation is also repeating a TV ad created last year and featuring Masi Oka, one of the stars of the popular TV series "Heroes." And on Monday, Taxi will release a new ad featuring video of the late John Lennon.

Lavoie said the foundation's goal of rescuing children from poverty and exploitation justified the hard-hitting content of "Skills." "We're not selling cheese here," he said. "If we have to break a couple of eggs to make the omelet, we'll do it."

Hiawatha Bray can be reached at

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