The ‘social-experiment’ for social good: how the format is driving fresh perspectives and large audiences to familiar topics.

Hidden camera ‘social-experiment’ videos are generating multi-million views on social media – with audiences sharing them extensively among their networks. The increasing popularity of this style presents an exciting avenue for NGOs looking to engage audiences as part of their digital outreach strategy.  In collaboration with UNICEF Somalia, Reelmedia Film produced its own: ‘The real price of water’ – a project that garnered 26m hits worldwide.

Here, we talk about the format, our approach to making the video and why it proved so popular.

With so much of today’s media consumed in blink-and-you’ll-miss-it fragments, NGOs are confronted with the challenge of creating content that holds viewer’s attention and rises above the noise of existing competition. Video content on platforms like Snapchat, Instagram and Twitter run into the seconds rather than the minutes and while still passionate about long-form documentary, audiences on social media seek instant engagement that is personalised and relatable.

It is with these demands in mind that forward-thinking organisations are turning towards the ‘social experiment’ video – a versatile medium, well-suited to social media platforms.

The format, which involves confronting an ‘ordinary’ member of the public with an unexpected challenge or situation, presents hard-to-reach subjects in an engaging and accessible manner. Convictions are overturned as participants and viewers pause their daily routine to tackle uncomfortable realities. UNICEF’s previous project Would you stop if you saw this child in the street? demonstrated the efficacy of the approach, when it captured pedestrians’ reactions to Anona, a six-year-old actor dressed in the clothes of a street-child. The hostility that UNICEF documented on film, highlighted ingrained societal prejudice and received millions of views online, as well as widespread coverage in the international press.

It became clear that the ‘social-experiment’ video has the potential as a powerful format for raising awareness and enacting change.

‘An exciting opportunity for NGO’s to ride the wave of popularity’.

Creating our own 'social-experiment'.

In 2017, we worked with UNICEF Somalia to produce our own ‘social-experiment’ video, The real price of water’ which went viral and won two awards in the Lovies 2018. Our ambition was to bring the reality of the distance that Somali children must walk each day to a Western audience.

Setting up a stall in a crowded public place, the first element of our filmed experiment was to replace the monetary value of a bottle of water with a different currency; kilometres. Initially confused participants were then encouraged to walk the requisite distance on a nearby treadmill. Numerous members of the public refused but some accepted the challenge. Having walked their assigned journeys in the heat of summer, participants were presented with their purchase. Those who took a gulp at the water were shocked upon finding that the list of ‘ingredients’ included water-borne diseases like cholera and typhoid.

“Would you feel comfortable drinking this water?” the stall-holder asks one woman who is about to drink her bottle of water.

‘Uh…no,’ she replies.

The ‘social experiment’ allowed us to place members of the public in the shoes of the children who do have to walk long distances for water, only to collect water that contains deadly diseases. What had seemed like the common street-stall selling water was transformed into a striking experiment in empathy for others far removed from the comforts of the Western world.

The real price of water went viral, with 26million views worldwide’.

Going viral

Much work was also carried out after delivery to ensure the hard-hitting message of the film gained as much exposure as possible. Supported by a dedicated PR team, work included liaising with regional UNICEF offices across the globe, utilising social influencers as well as engaging popular online platforms such as Buzzfeed and AJ+.

The international success of The real price of water points to the potential for further projects that utilise public participation to create videos that are worthy of widespread sharing. The element of empathy and the encouragement of new ways of thinking, in ‘social-experiment’ films, demonstrates just how well the format corresponds with the aims and objectives of development and humanitarian organisations.

If you have any questions relating to this article, or would like to discuss how Reelmedia Film can help with your organisations’ communication objectives, please do not hesitate to get in touch.

Latest journals


Storytelling for change

The stories we tell