A student charity group are facing mounting pressure to abandon plans to release an awareness video after the police fined them £80 and told them to stop, or face reprisal.
The controversial sign carrying the words ‘F*** the poor’ was part of an awareness campaign to highlight social poverty and promote the UNICEF Symposium being held in St Andrews this spring, The Saint can confirm.
However the students are bowing to the public backlash and are wary of publishing the video which was set for release this weekend. Maxim Voloshin, marketing director for the UNICEF Symposium, told The Saint: “We are currently debating whether the video should be released, because we do not want to further offend anyone.”
The students involved were attempting to recreate the infamous ‘F*** the Poor?’ awareness video posted on YouTube by the Pilion Trust charity this April.
The police were called after reports of disruptive behaviour. Mr Voloshin was fined £40 and the actor carrying the sign, who wished to remain anonymous, was also fined £40 – despite their charitable intentions.
Speaking to The Saint, a spokesperson for UNICEF said that they were unaware of the students’ intentions to raise awareness in this manner. The police were also not forewarned of their intentions.
Standing on Market Street, just outside of Boots and Pret A Manger, at first the actor stood holding a sign calling for donations to UNICEF. After a time, the sign was switched to one carrying the words ‘F*** the poor.’ Throughout this time, a film crew – provided by Lightbox Creative – was secretly recording the reactions of the public to each sign.
The police heard complaints from passersbys who, unaware of the context, found the slogan offensive. They are also reported to have received a complaint that the students were shouting at members of the public. They arrived at the scene at around 1.30 pm on Saturday 31 January, briefly confiscated the film footage and fined them for anti-social behaviour.
A spokesperson for Police Scotland said: “Police will follow up on any complaints they receive about inappropriate conduct, and as a matter of course, will investigate. On this occasion, a fixed penalty notice was given following complaints of a disturbance.”
The Saint understands that Lightbox have subsequently ended their association with UNICEF on campus, wanting nothing to do with the controversy and offense caused. Lightbox declined to comment on this matter.
Mr Voloshin defended his actions saying, “The point of the video is to say: We know you care, so show it in your everyday actions.”
The actor who was carrying the sign admitted to The Saint that he had doubts before filming began. “I was intrigued but sceptical as to whether it would work to the same effect as the original,” he said. “Now that it has been filmed and I’ve been able to see responses online, particularly on Overheard [in St Andrews], I know that this is an incredibly poignant project that has really gotten to people on both sides.
“I’ve seen some supporting the idea of the project pointing out how little people seem to actually care versus people just calling us controversial for the sake of getting attention (which is the point). We were trying to shed light on the fact that caring starts right here at home.”
Mr Voloshin expressed his regret that their actions offended members of the public. “I would like to apologise to everyone who was offended by the language. The intention was to shock and remind everyone that we care, but not in any way to offend,” he said.
“In retrospect I think I should have toned down the sign, as I didn’t want to create a problem,” he continued. “Having said that, the big reaction supports the point of the video and shows that as a community St Andrews cares a lot. And that is great to know!”
The actor added: “It’s very easy to take 10 seconds and yell at someone on the street for being controversial, but it’s another to put your money where your mouth is and do something about it.
“In the hour and a half I was out there, I had probably 45-50 different people come up to me to speak their mind about what the sign said, and only two people actually stopped to offer a donation. That division is exactly why this project is so important.”
Niall Scott, director of corporate communications for the University, said: “This was not the sort of gratuitous profanity which we might encounter every day, but a deliberately provocative use of the word in the cause of charity. It’s an important distinction.
“We can and should debate whether Market Street on a Saturday afternoon was the wisest time and place for such a stunt, but a reasonable person might ask, which is more offensive – the use of a common swear word in public, or the fact that families in Fife and across Scotland are relying on food banks to survive?”
When he heard about the police’s response to the video, the actor said his “first thought was that I wished people would have the same enthusiasm for actually helping people who need it as they do for tearing down some nobody on the street. If I were showing explicit pictures of the situations children are in across the globe that UNICEF is trying to prevent, people would not have been nearly as offended as they were. As the original video says, ‘we know you care.’ People just have to show it.”
Pat Mathewson, president of the Students’ Association, commented: “I think it’s an error in judgment in a small town like St Andrews where word travels as fast as it does. It’s very easy for this to become divorced from the advert they intended to emulate.”
Dan Meagher, president of UNICEF on campus, said that at the symposium in March, “humanitarians, academics and students will be able to discuss new methods of addressing children suffering unfortunate circumstance on a global scale.
“The inaugural theme for this March is ‘Childhood in Conflict’ and we have a roster of confirmed speakers and professors who will touch upon this theme from various angles through a weekend-long program of presentations and round-table discussions.
“The speakers include humanitarian workers, and dignitaries including actors, authors, and former refugees. The goal is to educate and inspire while also raising funds for children in need.”
The symposium will take place from 6 to 8 March.