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.
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.