Charity marketing: can we subvert without cruelty?

I almost didn’t write this post because the ad is apparently four months old, but having only just seen St John’s Ambulance DRTV offering ‘Helpless’ – and holding some reservations about it – I decided to go ahead.

If you haven’t seen it yet, Helpless (created by Bartle Bogle Hegarty) begins with some well-trodden, emotionally difficult scenes whereby our protagonist gets a diagnosis of cancer (so far, so Cancer Research UK…). He breaks the news to his wife and children, and we see him during his treatment – becoming ill, shaven-headed, and weak. We are shown the strange and surreal monotony of chemotherapy sessions, the physical sickness, and the quiet reflection on mortality. For any of us who have experienced cancer through our family and friends, this is familiar and unpleasant territory.

However – we are bouyed by the success of the treatment; our man’s health improves, and we see him exercising his way to former strength. I expected a CRUK logo to appear at this point – or another big budget cancer charity’s details to fill the screen.

But wait – our man is now choking on a burger at a celebratory barbeque. And – oh he’s dead, because no one at the party (here’s the cruel twist) is versed in the heimlich manoeuvre. The details of St John’s Ambulance emerge, with the ad copy proclaiming that first aid could prevent 140,000 deaths each year (in the UK?). The same number (poetically) that die of cancer.

St John's Ambulance burger choke

So, my issue. I am clearly supposed to a member of the demographic shocked into giving. But instead I found the advert kind of cheap. Harnessing one genre to evoke the feelings and emotions of another is used all the time in commercials – it’s integral to storytelling; shorthand to audience recognition. But just as I called out CRUK for going pink to appeal to the breast cancer ‘market’ during Race for Life, I’d suggest that St John’s Ambulance knew they were being cynical when grabbing the eyeballs of those of us weakened by experiencing our loved ones’ cancer.

It almost requires a sardonic Chris Morris (ala Jam) to come in playing a slide trombone when the killer (pun intended) punchline hits us. He survived cancer, but he choked on a burger. Dems da breaks.

The debate continues as to whether shock is more effective in opening the wallets and shaking out the purses than, for example, humour or optimism. The British Heart Foundation recently got us talking and donating with their ‘Hard and Fast’ ads with Vinne Jones. And Sightsavers nicely lampoons ‘the feel-bad four’ charity marketing approaches, in a skit with James Corden. It is possible to subvert without cruelty, is my point.

Working at a charity which doesn’t compromise on its message to be can-do, positive and optimistic, I naturally balk a little at the manipulation involved in eliciting guilt, shame, or shock in non-profit ads. I also consider it lazy. But that’s just me. And I work in the sector.

Have you seen the St John’s Ambulance ad, and what do you think? It it makes you want to learn first aid – great. If you donated, good for you. But for what reasons did you do it? I’ll take a bet it wasn’t because of the cancer backstory, but was that what drew your eye?

I am 100% for creativity, innovation and strong storytelling in charity marketing and fundraising. What I have less of an appetite for is creative which borrows the symbols, strengths and iconography of another highly emotive subject – in order to ride that conceit to a cynical, ‘punchline’ coda. I don’t feel empowered, I feel depressed.

12 thoughts on “Charity marketing: can we subvert without cruelty?

  1. Well, I work in charity PR (at Girlguiding UK), another potentially dark place when it comes to messaging and persuasion. For our part, Girlguiding UK makes a point of turning everything to the positive as much as we can, even if it’s some slightly depressing results or our annual survey of girls in the UK.

    I’d never seen the James Corden ad before (what a revelation!) but I don’t agree with the feel-bad four. I think those sort of messages should stay in the 80s with Band-Aid, where they shocked the world and rightly brought terrible things to the world’s attention.

    I think now is the time to say positive things about what charities do to help everyone they help and I believe the sector and its supporters have the expertise to do it creatively and sensitively. Being guilted, blindsided by bad comedy, or feeling forced into empathy or shock leaves a bad taste in the mouth, even if people have made the positive decision to donate.

    I only see good things when people are empowered and believe they can effect change.

    1. Thanks for taking the time to comment, Catherine. Do you think we are biased by working the sector, playing devil’s advocate? We feel passionately about empowering the users of our services and giving them a voice; but ‘Jo/anna Public’ aren’t as nuanced and ‘need a wake up call’? This isn’t necessarily what I believe – I just wonder whether that’s the thinking behind the more ‘shocking’ ad campaigns. Not to my taste either though… R

      1. Ah yes I like a bit of devil’s advocate (people do that to me a lot on account of my overly chirpy-sounding responses and opinions and I welcome it because I like to be challenged)

        I’m lucky because the majority of our users at Girlguiding UK are already empowered and have a deep understanding – they’re ‘in guiding’ as we say (and I’m one of them as well as being staff). And that’s a fantastic position for us to be in.

        So perhaps it’s about finding that hook that gets people to firstly feel passionate and like they understand the charity’s work, then reminding them that they’re in the driving seat when it comes to making the changes they feel strongly about. I think wake up calls and shock tactics are a reflex quick-fix. People will donate and continue to donate if they feel like the charity is interested in their motivations, and they’re more involved.

        There, hope that wasn’t too chirpy… I’ll always stand by my optimistic views though, I think we have to in this sector. (resists temptation to end post with exclamation mark…)

  2. Great blog post and comment – there’s certainly a debate and view at the moment whether we are becoming de-sensitised to ‘shock tactic’ ads. It’s a debate of which I do think has some truth. I personally do feel there is a time and place for such tactics – but used sparingly and honestly – there are certain subjects rather than ’causes’ that ‘sometimes’ have a need at times to prompt in such a way – but the positive angle is often underestimated and can have just a successful an impact by sheer emotional empowerment.

  3. Perhaps SJA will do a sequel in which his life is saved by one of the guests that had previously been shocked into learning First Aid.

    This may be followed by a parodying video mash-up launched on YouTube where the man, who has worked as a volunteer at his local stables since he was a boy, learns his burger was contaminated with horse DNA. At this, he loses control, jumps on his trusty stallion and rides up to Tesco’s HQ to deliver a withering, spine-curdling rant and demands his money back. The credits roll, and we realise the original concept has been hijacked by Which? as its next subscription ad.

  4. How ironic, the narrative device used by the St John’s Ambulance ad, that is. Wouldn’t it be more ironic if they exceeded their target for the campaign? The ads you refer to have different calls to action, joining in, making a donation, learn a skill, save a life. I think ethical considerations are essential when it comes to putting your message out because it’s the brand the audience identifies with and your brand embodies your values.

    The problem with the St John’s Ambulance attempt to subvert their chosen genre is that for a large part of the audience, powerful, moving drama is not fair game, whereas stand up comedy and crime fiction are.

    The BHF vid with Vinnie Jones was excellent, lots of popular cultural references, smart use of information graphics and it really got the message across. They didn’t even ask for your money, just told you how you could save a life in those particular circumstances.

    Creativity is a really important tool in a very competitive market place with a sophisticated target audience but if it doesn’t work in terms of the campaign’s objectives then it’s at best a learning experience for the charity and at worst a waste of funds.

  5. Really good piece Rob.

    I remember having similar thoughts when I first watched it, which I did knowing that it was a St John’s Ambulance ad. I must admit I didn’t see where it was going, or how it would link to their cause, but initially though it was well done – and I still do.

    It is cynical, and they absolutely knew what they were doing (they consulted with CRUK when making the ad, who provide a quote in their news story:

    I don’t know what the answer is, but the charity space is competitive (which is a phrase I really dislike typing). Harnessing one group’s emotions to highlight another issue, if it means more awareness and support, can be a good thing – especially if it’s bringing awareness to two both elements, which this one may be doing. The advert definitely stuck in my head, which is what they would have wanted.

    I’ve not read anything around how cancer patients reacted to the advert – but that would be interesting to see.

    I think it’s a brave attempt at standing out, that was made with a lot of care and attention to detail – utilising expertise from others where needed. I was trying to think of what else they could have done to advertise – there’s a lot they could do around stories of people who have had their lives saved due to the actions of St John’s volunteers or training courses.

    They could get some amazing, heartfelt, emotional stories I’m sure, and I’d really like to see them use these in further work they do. It’s those stories that would make me (without my charity comms hat on!) interested in supporting or finding out more.

    Thanks for highlighting the Sightsavers video too – I’d not seen that. I love the honesty.

    1. Thanks Joe – hadn’t seen that SJA link so thanks for that. Standing out is vital, but you’re right – they will have so many rich and emotive stories of their own. I just felt the cancer backstory with the wool-pulling burger outro was insincere and manipulative. I guess it was all a bit close to home for me, and I felt it was almost laughing at the victim…

  6. Hi everyone

    I’m the Head of PR at St John Ambulance and I wanted to give you our insight on the campaign.

    There is a reason we chose to compare a lack of first aid with cancer. Our medical team looked into death registration data and found that up to 140,000 people die each year in situations where first aid could have emmagiven them a chance to live. Every year 140,000 people die of cancer.

    The cancer charities have done a brilliant job in raising awareness and reducing death rates. Unfortunately for most people if someone has cancer, as much as you can offer support etc, the situation is out of your hands. But with first aid it’s not and yet people haven’t been motivated to learn.

    We knew that the subject matter was uncomfortable. We worked with CRUK to try and deal with the subject sensitively and we are, of course, sorry that it has upset some people. But the reaction to the campaign has been overwhelmingly positive. Over 20,000 people texted us for a first aid guide, thousands more have downloaded our app and watched our online videos, or like us on Facebook where we regularly give them first aid advice. Plus we know of at least two lives that have been saved because of the campaign.

    Would that have happened if there had been a positive ending? Who knows? We’re big fans of the BHF Vinnie campaign and that has been successful too. But the fact that you’re blogging and commenting on our advert now shows that it has got your attention and people are talking about first aid in a way that they haven’t done before. Our research showed that two-fifths of people said it would take the death of a loved one to make them learn first aid. By demonstrating how this would feel we hope to avoid this fate for many people in the future.

    1. Thanks very much for taking the time to post a response Emma. I guess your figures speak for themselves – and that is an impressive public response for downloading the first aid guide (not to mention the buzz that the ad has clearly created). So well done there.

      I think it’s apparent that it’s not to my taste 😉 but I think it’s valuable to hear why charities make the decisions they do regards marketing and fundraising – and to debate them.

      I really appreciate you posting, and I’ll be anticipating the next campaign – not least of all to see if I get all fired up!

  7. I actually really liked the ad – I think it works well and makes the point that first aid is about the ‘right here, right now’ knowledge that can save lives. The ‘cancer story’ is surely a classic case of what I believe Hitchcock used to call the McGuffin technique of distracting the viewer frome the main plot point.

    Being as postive as possible about NFP work makes sense, but sometimes a bit of a shock tactic is needed, especially with something like first aid.

    However, I didn’t like the Shelter ads that I saw on the Tube before Christmas. I think it asked if I was ‘outraged’ that 1,000s of children would be spending Christmas in B&Bs. Saddened, disappointed, upset, yes. But there was too much worthy text and not enough letting the picture speak for itself, for my taste.

    So there you go – different ads work better for different folks, I guess!

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