DC's We Can Be Heroes poster, featuring silhouettes of superheroes in front of Africa.

Can Batman Stop a Famine? An Assessment of the Pop Culture-Focused Humanitarianism of DC Entertainment’s “We Can Be Heroes” Campaign

Cover image courtesy of DC Entertainment

–by Chris Progler–


The 2011 drought that ravaged the Horn of Africa was among the most devastating seen in the region for 60 years; the impact was so widespread that the major international NGO Oxfam undertook its largest-ever fundraising attempt, raising over $118,000,000 (Oxfam). Countries such as Somalia, Ethiopia, and Kenya faced a food crisis on a massive scale; due to the lack of rain, farming was dragged to a halt and food was incredibly scarce, estimates of the number of people impacted range from 8,000,000 to as many as 13,000,000. The crisis was characterized as a complex emergency by the United States Agency for International Development, meaning that the situation was a result of numerous complex factors, both natural and man-made, that combined to form a far greater disaster; in this case, there was a combination of drought and underlying social instability that contributed to the region’s already troubling levels of food insecurity and putting millions of live at risk (USAID). The scope of the disaster was so massive that it even drew widespread attention from individuals and organizations that were not typically involved with humanitarianism. DC was one such organization, taking the step of announcing a humanitarian relief effort called “We Can Be Heroes” that DC itself described as an “unprecedented giving campaign” (DC, “DC Entertainment Announces ‘We Can Be Heroes’”). The campaign would use the full power of DC’s massive commercial brand to promote its fundraising efforts and raise awareness of the situation in the Horn of Africa, and would partner with major humanitarian organizations, specifically Save the Children, Mercy Corps, and International Rescue Committee, to bolster itself. With a combination of DC’s own resources and the resources of these partner organizations, “We Can Be Heroes” developed into a campaign that was able to commit to completely matching all donations (HuffPost). “We Can Be Heroes” functioned with the full support of Warner Bros., of which DC Entertainment (including DC Comics, DC Films, and all related brands) is a subsidiary, giving it the potential for massive exposure to consumers across all Warner Bros. media. The campaign set an initial fundraising goal of $2,000,000 across a two-year period.

The First Year

DC formally began the “We Can Be Heroes” campaign in early 2012. With design elements such as posters featuring silhouettes of the Justice League against a backdrop of the African continent, DC designed its advertising in such a way that it was strengthened by its association with popular DC characters without the characters overshadowing the campaign itself. “We Can Be Heroes” gained widespread attention, while simultaneously bringing attention to the humanitarian organizations with which DC had partnered. For example, the Portland, Oregon headquarters of Mercy Corps were home to a temporary exhibition in June 2012 featuring DC characters alongside “photographs of the real-life heroes who are fighting hunger in Ethiopia, Somalia, and Kenya” (Schmidt). In July, that same exhibition moved on to San Diego Comic-Con, which, with at least 140,000 attendees annually, has been frequently cited as the largest annual comic and pop culture festival in the world (Glenday).

Circumstances and marketing such as these allowed “We Can Be Heroes” to reach audiences and locations that these sorts of humanitarian efforts might not normally reach; at the very least, it was a convenient way of getting word out about the crisis in the Horn of Africa. Thanks to the strong infrastructure and marketing behind it, the campaign was a massive success, surpassing all expectations and passing its two-year fundraising goal of $2,000,000 within its first year (DC, “5.2 Reasons to Donate to the ‘We Can Be Heroes’ Campaign”).

The Second Year

With a highly successful first year under its belt, DC searched for ways to strengthen “We Can Be Heroes” even further for its second year of operation. It eventually settled on the usage of incentives such as opportunities for celebrity meetings, merchandise giveaways, and the ability to acquire signed or limited edition graphic novels and comics in order to encourage further donations. DC worked out a system in which for certain restricted amounts of time throughout 2013, typically a week but sometimes more, “We Can Be Heroes” would feature a particular character, and donations made during that timespan would result in the individual who had made the donation being able to receive one or more of the aforementioned incentives pertaining to that character. This strategy proved to be a resounding success; a Batman-focused campaign running from April 2 until May 7 and a follow-up Superman-focused campaign alone raised $285,000 (Business Wire).

Positive and Negative Implications

From a financial standpoint, “We Can Be Heroes” was an unqualified success. The campaign successfully took advantage of the popularity and widespread reach of DC in order to raise an impressive amount of money, especially for a company that had little to no prior history of humanitarian effort. However, a deeper analysis of the campaign raises some more complex questions. One of DC’s main ideas behind “We Can Be Heroes” was to use the popularity of its brand and characters in order to raise money for what they considered to be a true humanitarian tragedy. This was viewed as controversial by some; at the time, blogger and freelance writer Jeremy Williams noted that superheroes such as DC characters tend to be somewhat powerless in the face of real-world tragedies such as droughts, famines, or other humanitarian crises, and that directly juxtaposing fictional superheroes with these issues only made that fact even more obvious (Williams). Beyond that, there was also the issue of DC using the opportunity to earn limited-edition merchandise to encourage fans to donate a relatively small amount of money to people who were starving and watching their children starve. These controversies generate some thought-provoking questions: to what extent is it morally responsible to use one’s position of power in pop culture to encourage humanitarian action? Did DC cross a line by offering a yearly subscription to a popular comic book to try to encourage a $30 donation to help people who probably would never care about DC superheroes? Do campaigns and activities such as “We Can Be Heroes” cheapen humanitarianism by directly commercializing it?

Though these are thought-provoking criticisms, they ultimately do not detract from the benefits of “We Can Be Heroes”. It is true that donations, particularly in the campaign’s second year, may not have been entirely motivated by altruism. The morality of using pop culture to encourage helping people whose lives are on the line is undeniably up for debate as well. However, cases such as these are absolutely examples of the ends justifying the means. “We Can Be Heroes” raised an impressive amount of money and in doing so brought attention to a massive humanitarian crisis, particularly from people who were less likely to donate or pay attention in the first place. A pop culture-focused humanitarianism campaign such as “We Can Be Heroes” is highly likely to appeal to young people, and people of ages 16-24 are statistically the least likely to give money to charitable efforts (Williams). The massive financial success of “We Can Be Heroes” has highly positive implications with regards to the ability of this campaign and other campaigns like it to bring about humanitarian concern in people who would otherwise be unaware of the hardships facing so many people around the world. If “We Can Be Heroes” truly cheapened humanitarianism, than it certainly was successful enough to have made it worthwhile.


A common problem across humanitarianism of any kind is the assumption on the part of the individual or organization seeking to provide aid that they are in fact qualified to do so. DC avoided this issue by merely raising money with all the power at its disposal and giving it to organizations that they assumed had the capability to provide lasting aid, rather than attempting to take that step themselves. Countless celebrities, religious groups, voluntourists, and others have traveled to the developing world with the intention of doing humanitarian work and left without ever having made a difference, all because of their own inability to recognize that they simply did not have all the answers. DC provided real, tangible support, matched the donations it received, and used its unique position in pop culture to bolster its efforts, without insisting on overseeing every individual thing that was done with the money that it raised. The success of “We Can Be Heroes” in raising money and awareness for the food crisis in the Horn of Africa, and the ability of DC to do so in an open-minded, positive way, has very positive implications for the future of unconventional, pop culture-based humanitarianism.

This post may have been edited by admin for clarity and length.

Works Cited

“5.2 Reasons to Donate to the ‘We Can Be Heroes’ Campaign.” DC, 4 Apr. 2013, www.dccomics.com/blog/2013/04/04/52-reasons-to-donate-to-the-we-can-be-heroes-campaign.

“ DC Entertainment Announces ‘We Can Be Heroes’, an Unprecedented Giving Campaign to Fight the Hunger Crisis in the Horn of Africa.” DC, 30 May 2012, www.dccomics.com/blog/2012/01/23/dc-entertainment-announces-%25e2%2580%259cwe-can-be-heroes%25e2%2580%259d-an-unprecedented-giving-campaign-to-fight-the-hunger-crisis-in-the-horn-of-africa.

“DC Entertainment Brings the Power of the Justice League to the Final ‘We Can Be Heroes’ Crowdfunding Campaign in 2013 to Benefit the Horn of Africa.” Business Wire, 17 Sept. 2013, www.businesswire.com/news/home/20130917005857/en/DC-Entertainment-Brings-Power-Justice-League-Final.

“Food Crisis in the Horn of Africa.” Famine and Hunger Crisis | Oxfam International, www.oxfam.org/en/research/food-crisis-horn-africa.

Glenday, Craig. “San Diego Comic-Con – a Geeky Hotbed of Record Breaking.” Guinness World Records, Guinness World Records, 18 July 2013, www.guinnessworldrecords.com/news/2013/7/san-diego-comic-con-a-geeky-hotbed-of-record-breaking-49972/.

“Horn of Africa | Disaster Assistance.” U.S. Agency for International Development, www.usaid.gov/crisis/horn-of-africa.

Schmidt, Jennifer. “We Can Be Heroes Exhibit’ Opens Eyes to Horn of Africa Crisis.” Mercy Corps, 28 Aug. 2014, www.mercycorps.org/articles/united-states/we-can-be-heroes-exhibit-opens-eyes-horn-africa-crisis.

“Superman, Batman, Other Superheroes Fight Famine In Africa.” HuffPost, 24 Jan. 2012, www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/01/24/superman-batman-other-dc-_n_1228248.html.

Williams, Jeremy. “Can We Be Heroes? DC in the Horn of Africa.” Make Wealth History, 30 Jan. 2012, www.makewealthhistory.org/2012/01/30/can-we-be-heroes-dc-in-the-horn-of-africa/.



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