ROME (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Recruiting Zlatan Ibrahimovic to draw attention to world hunger paid off for the U.N. World Food Programme when a video of the footballer with the names of people who don’t get enough to eat inked on his torso went viral on Monday.
After scoring a goal just 72 seconds into a French league match on Saturday, the Paris St Germain striker stripped off his shirt to reveal the names of 50 hungry people on his torso, kicking off a WFP campaign and earning himself a yellow card in the process.
"I have supporters all over the world," Ibrahimovic said in the slick online video produced by a Swedish ad agency. "Beginning today, I want this support to go to the people who really need it."
The United Nations estimates that 805 million people, one ninth of the world's population, don’t get enough to eat.
The WFP is feeding about 80 million of them in Syria, Iraq, South Sudan, the Central African Republic, the Ebola-hit countries of West Africa and elsewhere.
More than 1.2 million people had seen the video by early afternoon Monday European time, and activists hope this new awareness of hunger will bring more donations for aid groups stretched by the increasing number of conflicts round the world.
"The response has been much larger than we expected – it's amazing," Marina Catena, the WFP official leading the campaign, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Finding the names of hungry people to ink on Ibrahimovic's torso wasn't easy at first, Catena said, as many are living in war zones or areas that are hard to reach.
She would not say how much money had been raised so far on the first day of the campaign, but said she believed the message that "hunger is not just for humanitarians" was resonating.
Last year, the WFP spent $1.26 billion buying 2.2 million tonnes of food for hungry people in 93 countries.
All its funds come from donations, most of them from governments, and raising money is a constant challenge, WFP officials said.
"Charities want to achieve two things: donations and raising their profile," Rebecca Hopkins, a sports marketing expert and manager of the firm ENS Ltd, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
"This campaign has done an excellent job of raising a huge amount of awareness very quickly ... The money doesn't come overnight; the campaign takes time to build."
From a public relations perspective, the campaign is strengthened by focusing on a star like Ibrahimovic, a Swede, who has not lent his name to many endorsements "whether charitable or commercial", Hopkins said.
This sort of exclusivity, coupled with the dramatic display of the "tattoos" at a football match, helps create a bigger impact, she said.
The Ice Bucket Challenge, a charity campaign to promote awareness of the disease amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), went viral last year and eventually raised about $100 million for research, Hopkins said.
In December, the WFP had to suspend aid for victims of the conflict in Syria when it temporarily ran out of funds.
Reporting By Chris Arsenault; Editing by Tim Pearce