Being powerful without looking powerless

Okay so I was really torn about posting this because immediate assumptions would be made about the fact that I work at a competitor charity in the same area of support and provision (full disclosure there), but I’m going to say positive things about the Muscular Dystrophy Campaign as well as question the imagery and tone of their latest poster – which I snapped here at Wimbledon train station.

For me, the image of the lonely looking boy, Bradley, staring out at us from the dreary colourless landscape (it wasn’t just my mobile phone or the light making it dark) strikes a very vivid and deliberate tone of isolation and exclusion. ‘Okay’, you might say, ‘they’re painting a picture…’

But next that unforgivable strapline. Surely the point of the equipment he has (or rather needs, as his chair looks a little too big for him and ‘standard’ NHS / clunky) is to free him up and make him independent and active? A really cool wheelchair (which the MD Campaign can provide I’m sure – yay!) becomes his key to mobility and inclusion. But the line that he can’t ‘walk away’ is placing an enormous emotional charge in the wrong area. Whether it’s a reference to his inability to walk (don’t go there), or a clumsy finger-point at the casual reader who can ‘walk away’ from the issue (of disability? charity? funding a new wheelchair for Bradley?); it objectifies Bradley as pitiful and helpless. It’s a bit of a cheap guilt-inducement in my opinion.

It also kind of presumes that the casual reader or potential donor (although there is an absence of a fundraising ask) is a non-disabled person – and not a fellow wheelchair-user that can ‘wheel away’ as they please.

The point here is that our sector should be trying to innovate fundraising and awareness-raising by working hand-in-hand with the people we support. Absolutely, the lived-experiences and voices of our (pick a term) service users / clients / beneficiaries should be at the forefront of our messages. But personally I think – hope – that we are past the stage where we objectify them. Rather we should seek to make their stories our stories to challenge public assumptions about what we can positively achieve if we work together [great debate going on over here about this].

I think the Muscular Dystrophy Campaign is doing some really cool things, and both its website – and their 2009/10 Tesco Charity of The Year TV adverts carry some really great, positive images of young disabled people. The charity has clear links on their site to advice about initial diagnosis, and publications for carers and families; as well as some strong campaigns asks that appear to be driven by disabled people.

Let me make this clear – my big question mark is over this one ‘Bradley’ campaign poster, which also features a url link to Bradley’s story in a video on the website, which actually (apart from not speaking to him directly, only his mum) shows him to be pretty fun-loving and playful.

So my questions don’t come from spite, but rather a belief that we can be powerful without amplifying powerlessness. What do you think?

12 thoughts on “Being powerful without looking powerless

  1. Hi Rob-Thanks for sharing the thoughts you had and your questions. When it comes to this poster in particular, but also the myriad more just like it, I think that my response as a reader/audience member can be categorized the same way you categorize the subject!You said that Bradley is objectified as pitiful and helpless. That’s really the same way it makes me feel when I read it! I must be pitiful and helpless – that’s why I’m walking away, right? Or, at least “you” presume from the start that’s all I’m going to do. Where’s the invitation to help Bradley? Where’s the invitation to learn more about what his life is like and find out what he really wants to do (instead of perpetuating assumptions that all he wants is to “walk” – what if he really just wants to learn to paint?!)?When a campaign assumes I don’t care, I guess, well, I don’t feel like I should.

  2. Hi Amy, thank you for taking the time to comment. That’s really interesting – I hadn’t considered too fully how it makes a potential donor or supporter feel (helpless, ‘handcuffed’); I guess I was too numbed by the protagonist in the pic..I really hope MD take my observations in the right way – I’d be interested to know whether it was produced in-house or agency.

  3. Not that I only think about myself 😉  But, I do try to think about my first response to campaigns, messages, appeals, calls to action, etc. because, at the end of the day, I hope I'm not unlike many others and if I feel helpless then why should I assume others reading it don't as well. I hope they take the comments the right way, too – but I also hope it can contribute to a larger conversation that goes beyond this one example.Thanks!

  4. You can tell I’m a wheelchair user, I was looking at the poster trying to figure out exactly what chair it is he has. LOL. I agree with a lot of your comments in this post. But personally I don’t like the fact that the Tesco adverts use the term “devastating” to refer to Muscular Dystrophy. I have CP, not MD but I’m not sure any disability should be referred to as devastating.

  5. Very good point FunkyFairy – I hadn’t actually noticed that. As Amy suggests, it would be good to take a larger look at all campaigns, marketing and appeals that take this angle…For example, why are disabled people somehow always “suffering”, “ill”, “brave” or “inspiring” in media stories? Lazy subbing.We’re never going to get anywhere if we persist in pepetuating assumptions and stereotypes; the charity model (as The Daily Mail may see it) is dead. Organisations have to be led – or heavily informed by – the people that use them. ‘Cap in hand’ – and its offensive derivation – should have been laid to rest long ago.

  6. I agree with you all, on first seeing this ad my first feeling: “this is not sitting on me very well” my subsequent thoughts was a feeling I have when the WorldVision etc. ad campaigns come on, that being a sense of sorrow and pity for the suffering yet brave individuals. Which to me is a message that should not be associated with disabled people. I further Rob’s question: “why are disabled people somehow always “suffering”, “ill”, “brave” or “inspiring” in media stories?” – simple to pull at the strings of the viewer to help what ever way they can for these unhappy individuals’ that do not have the resources or the education to help themselves, which is so far from the truth.

  7. As a follow up to my first comment, I’ve just sent Tesco and e-mail about the advert. Probably not as well written as I could have done but hopefully I’ve got my point across.

  8. Irrespective of how I feel about the poster, I’m left wondering what it is for? What was the primary communciations objective? I can’t really tell. I’d hope it was part of some broader integrated campaign, but I am not sure it would achieve a great deal otherwise.I was quite surprised to see the poster’s headline, not least because I am sure the same headline was used by the then Muscular Dystrophy Group about 20 years ago. It also reminded me of attending a seminar run by the Co-op Bank many years ago about the use of imagery in charity advertising. A delegate who was in a wheelchair stated that it was the images used by charities that disabled him. Powerful words that have always stayed with me. I also recalled Peter Cardy, once CEO at the MS Society, telling me how their ‘torn spine’ posters of 15 years ago had been heavily criticised by people with MS even long after they had been taken down. These two conversations woke me up to the issue of ‘service users’ as an audience for fundraising comms, and how we can cause unintended, or thoughless, alarm and distress. (Yes, it’s a shame I hadn’t woken up to this issue earlier!)At the same time as respecting people, there is the issue of portraying need. I encounter this a lot in my work today – mostly producing drtv ads. All fundraising starts with a need, and if we can’t portray need in an engaging way then we won’t succeed as fundraisers. I guess what we have to try to do is inspire active compassion rather than pitying helplessness.

  9. Thank you Derek, really interesting to get a fundraising perspective on this too. I think your two incidences of the voices of real people are indicative that we (charities) are still not listening – and instead hit the default ‘elicit pity’ button far too readily. But surely this is patronising the public as well the people we’re trying to support and empower.I think social media is helping us tell real people’s stories – with Youtube, vimeo and Flickr in particular allowing us to film something and stick it online – without over-production or overlaying dramatic music or foreboding narration. I’m ultimately in favour of putting the tools in the hands of ‘users’ (for want of a better word) and saying ‘go for it – you tell us what you feel / want / dislike / need’. We’ll always need professional communicators and fundraisers, but we need to get smarter – listen more – and stop digging the ‘my cause is more desperate and helpless than their cause’ hole. Because it is a hole, and we’ll all fall down it.FunkyFairy – I hope you get a reply – send them some literature on the social model of disability 😉

  10. Just tot an e-mail back from Tesco “the use of the word devastating was referring to the destructive nature of the disease” although they concede my point and will try to be more considerate with wording in future. Oh and apparently my comments were interesting to read.

  11. Very interesting – the agency and MDc justify the ad in The Guardian:http://www.guardian.co.uk/media/2010/feb/01/muscular-dystrophy-advertising-campaign”Peers Carter, who recreated the poster with Tony Muranka, his agency partner, art director and photographer, doesn’t think shock tactics always work: “A successful charity campaign has to slightly hurt and include the reader, and this one has one of those magic lines that really gets to you.” The original ad ran on and off for 14 years. “Every time it came down the fundraising fell.”Abby Mardon, the director of marketing and fundraising at the Muscular Dystrophy Campaign, hopes the poster ad campaign has the same dramatic impact on people as the original. “A lot may have changed in 30 years but human nature still retains the same potential for compassion and the conviction to help change people’s lives. I think that looking at Bradley’s face will have the same effect on people as Anthony’s did all those years ago.”‘Needless to say, I think by going ‘old school’ they have also set back disability equality by 20 years….

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