Have charity shock ads lost their power to disturb?

Images such as Barnardos’ heroin baby have come to define charity advertising – but now some agencies are trying a more subtle tack

In 2000 children’s charity Barnardos produced one of the most shocking adverts ever for its Giving Children Back their Future campaign. An advertising watchdog urged newspapers not to carry the image (the Guardian and Observer defied the ban) of a baby injecting itself with heroin, and the charity swiftly replaced it with a smiling infant.

Two years later, however, Barnardos was using shock tactics again, with a campaign called Stolen Childhood, featuring imagery of artificially aged children being forced into prostitution. And its advertising campaign in 2009, showing the reality of domestic abuse, provoked more than 800 complaints, earning it a place on the list of the most complained about adverts ever produced.

advert showing an artificially aged child on a bed with the slogan 'Abuse through prostitution steals children's lives'
Barnardos’ advertising campaign from 2002 drew attention to increases in child trafficking, prostitution and abuse. Photograph: BARNARDO'S/PA

Barnardos may be the most notable, but it is far from the only charity to have repeatedly used emotive charity advertising. Pancreatic Cancer Action produced a particularly memorable ad, which showed a pancreatic cancer patient saying they would rather have a less virulent form of the disease such as breast, testicular or cervical cancer. But as their chief executive explained, despite complaints, using shock tactics to bolster a relatively small budget was highly effective. Millions of people became aware of the mostly fatal condition (just 3% of those diagnosed live longer than five years).

Barnardos told the Guardian back in 2009 that for it, too, shock tactics have proved effective in monetary terms – some potential donors were put off by the shocking violence in its domestic violence advert but overall, the proportion of viewers who said they were “very likely” to give to the charity increased.

However, as the market in emotive charity advertising becomes saturated, should the sector consider soft sell advertising to avoid fatigue?

Soft sell advertising, according to Ian Heartfield, creative director at advertising agency BBH (which recently produced the acclaimed video, The Chokeables, for St John Ambulance), “entertains the consumer using wit, charm, [and] excitement … More often than not it’s brand building, rather than product selling.”

Emma Sheppard, head of brand and communications at St John Ambulance, said that the motive for the video was ‘to make it as easy as possible for people to learn first aid’.

Dan Shute, managing director of advertising agency Creature, agrees that since the 1980s charity advertising has been stuck in a rut: “There is definitely a cliche of charity advertising – or charity with a serious message, like public service advertising. I would say since the serious Aids campaign of the 1980s there has been a series of waves of shock advertising.”

Shute says to get through to audiences that “are bombarded by same thing all the time” you need to offer something that doesn’t simply shock, but engages and entertains. “There’s a really simple metric here – you want people to like you [the brand].”

The recent Green party political broadcast, produced by Shute’s agency, is a case in point. It’s called GrownUpPolitics and features children impersonating the UK’s most senior politicians, and caused a social media storm. Shute says: “At the moment the right answer seems to be to be funny, lighthearted satire – but everyone starts doing the same thing then we would start. The point is that the Green party is the party that does things differently.”

The Green party advertisement was, as in previous ads, intended to show that their politics is different.

Shute also emphasises the importance of not repeating the same things over and over; it’s about the difference between execution and platform. The platform or strategy can stay the same – the idea that showing the Green party looks at politics differently – but the execution needs to change. Last year the execution was a boy band made up of the four main political leaders all singing in harmony, this year it’s kid–politicians being childish.

However, Joe Wade, managing director, at Don’t Panic advertising agency, is unequivocal in his support for using emotive advertising to reach a mass audience: “I would say emotive advertising is the way to go, especially for charities. The Most Shocking Second a Day video we made for Save the Children is probably one of the most successful examples of this.”

Considered to be one of the most successful charity ads in recent years, the Most Shocking Second a Day video tapped into the trend for parents to make one second a day videos of their children.

Wade says isn’t referring to traditional ads of “starving African children”, because this sort of content is too bleak to be shareable. And there are ways to ensure emotive ads are tested ahead of buying expensive old media slots. Save the Children, he notes, paid to run the Most Shocking Second a Day video on TV only after it went viral online. Digital success, he argues, can determine the likely impact of buying traditional ad space. Either way, he is clear emotive advertising is here to stay.

Heartfield agrees that being emotive often makes it easier for charities to justify advertising spends, and avoid the hit/miss risk of fun or amusing adverts. “When a brand spends vast sums of money on advertising that is nothing more than wallpaper, it’s reckless. When a charity does the same, it’s bordering on immoral. We’re not selling tins of beans, we’re trying to save lives. Get noticed. Get talked about,” he says.

But it must be engagingly emotive, rather than so distressing that it turns viewers off, says Shute. Shares, likes and comments are vital, argues Wade, when it comes to beating the rise in ad-blocking software and paid for views.

So what works, other than making people cry or laugh? For both Wade and Shute it’s about tapping into the zeitgeist. For instance, the Most Shocking Second a Day video mimicked the trend of parents making one second a day videos of their children. They also suggest looking at filming trends such as the rise of the continuous shot, seen recently in the film Victoria, or through someone’s point of view, such as personal GoPro efforts. However, the old tricks – riding on the social media buzz of large TV series or piggy-backing a trending hashtag – are not going anywhere.

But whether emotive or amusing, the messages charities want to convey, as do brands, will have to become ever more intertwined in telling a wider story, Wade says. The stories charities need to tell might be as hard-hitting as ever, but the mode will have to become more subtle. As Heartfield says: “No one’s really talking about ‘ads’ anymore,” people talk about a great video they have seen that may or may not have had a brand behind it.

The advertising agencies are clear on what makes a charity advert work – and it’s not about hard or soft sell. Change comes not from shock or amusement, but from how compelling an advertisement is. “[Whether its soft sell or not] great ads have always had something in common: people have wanted to watch them,” says Shute.

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Anna Isaac

The GuardianTramp

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