Shock & Nurture: The positives of charity campaign shock tactics

Posted by Emma Nicol | 29 August 2013

Categories: Advertising Campaign Charity Communications

Over the past two decades, the Third Sector has become professionalised, adopting corporate models of behaviour in an effort to command attention and get results in an always oversaturated commercial space. A space where even the best, most creative and affluent organisations can find it difficult to make their voice heard. So as you can imagine, the obstacles are even greater if you’re a smaller, budget-conscious charity that needs the maximum impact for minimum cost. This has resulted in many charities relying on provocative imagery/concepts for campaigns in the hope they can attract attention and elicit a response. However, this use of uncomfortable or distressing content as a communication tool has and will always be called into question by both the public and people who feel it’s an abuse of human emotion. But then, isn’t all advertising essentially an abuse of people’s insecurities and emotions? And this style of ad has a proven history of boosting both awareness and donations for struggling charities in the short term.

Given that Charities have been employing these tactics for such a long time now I think the most interesting development is not how far these ads are pushing the boundaries of what many consider good taste, but how they are subverting our understanding of its language and tropes.

The last great example being ‘Helpless‘, a St.John’s ambulance ad from 2012 which employs the kind of high production values now synonymous with the biggest charities to tell the story of how a man overcomes his plight against cancer. After he’s recovered we see him enjoying a garden barbecue with his friends and family in what we can only assume is the final shot of the ad before we can expect the Cancer Research logo to appear. Instead, we see the man choke to death on some food as no-one around him is capable of offering first aid in the form of the heimlich manoeuvre. We’re then presented with the following information: “First aid could help prevent up to 140,000 deaths every year. The same number of people that die of cancer”. The next screen reveals the St.John’s Ambulance logo and asks us to “Be the difference”.

When talking about the ad in his article ‘Charity marketing: can we subvert without cruelty?’, Rob Dyson (Whizz-Kidz PR Manager) says he “ found the advert kind of cheap”. Arguing that “creative which borrows the symbols, strengths and iconography of another highly emotive subject – in order to ride that conceit to a cynical, ‘punchline’ coda” makes him feel “unempowered and depressed”.

Personally, I disagree with Rob’s view. I found this ad to be extremely compelling with its uncomfortable tragicomedy ending and supporting statistic confounding my current knowledge of St.John’s Ambulance. Subverting the well worn and established emotive approach of Cancer Research, was an ingenious way for a charity that’s been overlooked and overshadowed in recent years to shift focus onto its equally important concerns. Most importantly, I think the ad forced people to reconsider the significance of St.John’s Ambulance and help reposition them within the popular mindset.

Needless to say, the ad was a huge success. In the hour after it was first aired the St.John’s Ambulance website recorded the most traffic it had ever had at any one time and in the week that followed over 19,000 people requested a free pocket guide. Their website also states that “In addition to requesting first aid guides, visitors to the site downloaded the charity’s free first aid app, watched first aid videos and played Rescue Run, its new first aid game”.

In defence of the hard-hitting ad Sue Killen, St John Ambulance Chief Executive, said: ‘We’re sorry to those who feel our tactics are too harsh but we hope those people realise that this advert will save lives. It has been said to be shocking but then it’s shocking when someone dies who could have had a chance to live. Our work is vital if we’re to reduce the number of lives being needlessly lost each year.’

Another example of a controversial hard-hitting charity campaign was the Beat Bullying Group’s ‘You Can Speak Out Now’, which was created for them by M&C Saatchi in 2010. This ad, which depicted a teen sewing up her own mouth because she felt she had no-one to talk to, received many complaints from parents who felt the imagery was too much. But again, the ad was a huge success with the accompanying website receiving over 50,000 hits on it’s first day. Followed by 1.5 million young people accessing the Cyber Mentors service it was promoting in the following weeks. Sherry Adhami, the charity’s comms director, says: ‘This was designed with input from young people. Some adults may have found it shocking but the powerful images resonated with the young people we were targeting.’

All advertising campaigns have their target demographic, and charities can fall victim to the notion that they should somehow be expected to adopt a one-size fits all approach – something they can’t afford to do if they are to be effective in achieving their goals. People need to appreciate that just because they happen to see a charity ad, it doesn’t necessarily mean it was intended for them. The success of the ‘You Can Speak Out’ charity campaign in communicating to it’s target audience in spite of complaints from parents highlights this important obstacle. And having established a solid foundation for its message the Beat Bullying Group chose to follow up this campaign with a focus on case studies and the latest research into new trends in cyberbullying. This is an excellent example of how to evolve your controversial ad into something more meaningful than a ‘quick win’.

I think it’s time we understand that hard-hitting charity campaigns, which have proven to be successful time and time again in raising awareness and establishing a new audience, are an acceptable part of the charity advertising vernacular. Then we can focus our criticisms and concerns on the more important topic of how charities move beyond this initial short-term boost of awareness to build stronger relationships through more subtle forms of communication in the hope of nurturing life-long support.

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