Personal appeal

The rise of digital media has seen subtlety replace shock in charity advertising, as agencies employ more personal approaches to engage potential donors

Charity advertising has long been dominated by shock tactics, with ad agencies relying on stark, visceral imagery and blunt messages to tug at our heartstrings, and in turn our wallets. But with the rise in internet advertising and social media, a trend for more subtle, personal approaches is emerging. Rather than simply bombarding people with demands for donations, recent charity campaigns have used engaging, unexpected strategies to capture the attention of potential donors, and to draw them into the issues promoted on a deeper level. For an audience that may feel battered by appeals, in a climate when money is tight, these techniques feel powerful and different.

One of the earliest examples of an ad agency cleverly using the internet to raise awareness for a charity comes from 2003, when Poke in London launched the Global Rich List website (, to raise money for the charity Care International. The site is centred on a trick of perception: audiences are invited to enter their annual income, to find out where they appear on a list of the richest people in the world. With Western audiences used to seeing the upper echelons of rich lists comprising of billionaires, most visitors in these regions assume that they will appear low on the list. And therein lies the twist: in a list that encompasses the seven billion plus citizens of the world, quite the opposite is of course true. Instead, someone earning an annual income of £25,000 discovers they are in the top 1.42% of the richest people in the world. They are then prompted to share some of their riches with Care.

The Global Rich List works by challenging audiences on a very personal level, yet with a lightness of touch that feels engaging rather than intrusive. This is a strategy that has rapidly increased in popularity in recent years, as charities see it as a new way to gain the attention, and hopefully the loyalty, of audiences.

A glut of new campaigns for charities have recently appeared on the internet and on social media sites. These range from quick, immediate ideas – such as the recent Dulux Own A Colour site, which invites users to purchase and name a Dulux colour, with all monies raised going to Unicef – to more complex offerings. Among the latter is the Slavery Footprint website. Created by US agency Muh.Tay.Zik/Hof.Fer in collaboration with production company Unit9, the site aims to draw attention to how our individual consumption habits feed slavery in the supply chain. It was commissioned by Call + Response, with funding from the US Department of State, Office on Human Trafficking. “They were armed with reams of economic data conservatively estimating the amount of slavery input in various consumer goods,” says John Matejczyk, creative director on the project. “Importantly, this was not about brands having ‘sweat shops’. It was about where the raw materials were coming from – something about which major brands have little knowledge.”

The agency knew they needed to come up with something simple and powerful to get the message across. “We were afraid it would be abstract,” continues Matejczyk. “Much like ‘carbon footprint’, it could lack specificity. And like most advocacy sites, the constant threat was that it would be met with eye rolls from a jaded public. So in an effort to make the experience concrete, we built it entirely around a specific question, which would give a specific answer: ‘How many slaves work for you?’ From there we made sure it was interactively educational throughout. We made a serious subject something OK to interact with.”

The website combines direct questions about each user’s consumption with charming graphics to create an absorbing experience. At the end, once presented with your slave count, users are encouraged to sign up for tips of how to lower it, and how to encourage brands to be more responsible. The agency also created the companion Made in a Free World mobile app to help people be more aware of what they are buying into when shopping.

This campaign uses modern technologies to engage audiences, though Matejczyk points out that simply using the new spaces offered by digital isn’t enough on its own for a campaign to work, it has to have a clever idea at its core too. “I actually feel that an excellent experience is just as rare in the new-ish social space as it ever was in the traditional broadcast space,” he says. “Social makes it more engaging, but only if it’s engaging to start with.”

Another charity to use the internet in an unusual manner is Greenpeace, an organisation better known for making robust, often highly controversial statements about its aims. When it came to raising money to finance a new Rainbow Warrior ship (the second RW was retired last summer, after 22 years of service), however, its advertising agency DDB Paris suggested a more subtle approach. “We thought that in times of crisis, a classic campaign would have touched nobody because everybody has problems that are more important to take care of, or at least people think so,” says Alexandre Hervé, executive creative director at the agency. “A very captivating, funny and personal campaign was needed and we proposed the following idea: to create a specific and original website allowing everyone to finance precise parts of the ship: the sails, furniture, screws, the rudder etc. In exchange, every donor receives a certificate and has their name on a list which is shown on the ship, making every donation very personal.”

The site, which again featured appealing visuals to back up the idea, included items costing from just one Euro, meaning that it was open to contributors from all walks of life. It was hugely successful, in part because it allowed audiences to engage with the project on a very specific level: they knew exactly what they were funding. “The project gives the audience the impression of being useful and part of the adventure,” says Hervé, “to be a hero in everyday life. But most importantly we know exactly who and what the money serves, which is still not very clear with certain NGOs – that is maybe the most effective argument to convince people to donate.”

Often simple ideas are the most powerful in advertising, and some of the most impressive recent campaigns for charities have used straightforward approaches to brilliant effect. The Underheard In New York project originated out of BBH New York’s internship programme, BBH Barn, and aimed to highlight the problem of homelessness in New York. The initiative tackled one of the greatest issues facing the homeless – that they often have no avenues with which to express themselves – head on, by giving four homeless men in the city a Twitter feed with which to share the day-to-day problems they face.

The power of the idea was in its honesty, by giving the men freedom to fully explain the brutality of life on the streets. Yet this was something that initially caused some discussion among the team at BBH. “The core of the idea is giving New York’s homeless an amplified yet unfiltered voice; telling the real story of what it is like to live on the streets of New York City,” says BBH NY art director Jessica Shriftman. “This reality means that they deal with an endless stream of unpleasant things. At first, the team’s inclination was to edit some of the tweets coming from Danny, Derrick, Carlos and Albert that might have been controversial. But the power of the project is the direct and unfiltered connection between these guys and their followers. Keeping it unfiltered and unedited was the right thing to do. It is the unfortunate reality of life on the streets.

“Projects like Underheard are engaging because they are highly personal,” continues Shriftman. “It is easy to receive a one-way broadcast message but not feel a connection or an obligation to act because issues tend to be generalised and any action you take seems to be equally general. When a social issue isn’t a general problem, but a specific person with a specific problem, we would hope the empathy level goes up significantly. More importantly, in the case of Underheard, the project was engaging for Danny, Derrick, Carlos and Albert. The big issue with being homeless is being disconnected with society and therefore not having a hand that can bring them back. The men received messages from around the world daily – including nearly 9,000 direct messages – sometimes just giving them encouragement, and sometimes just checking in to see how their day was. This project reconnected these men with society.”

Another project that is so simple and brilliant that it prompts cries of ‘why hasn’t this been done before?’, is a recent initiative to encourage people to join the bone marrow register in the US. Devised by Droga5 creative Graham Douglas, the Help I Want to Save a Life project pairs donor registration kits with packs of Help Remedies plasters. The kits require a small sample of blood, though as the donor is likely to be bleeding anyway – hence reaching for the plasters – this is a simple action. The samples are then sent to DKMS, the donor centre affliated with the project, which will follow up upon receipt.

The release of the packs marks the fruition of a ten-year project for Douglas, which was prompted by personal experience: watching his brother receive a bone marrow transplant that saved his life after being diagnosed with leukaemia in 2002. “My brother was one of the lucky ones,” he says. “I was one of the lucky ones. For every guy like me out there, there’s another one who doesn’t have a brother anymore. I’ve never been able to shake that. So like any overconfident ad guy, I’ve been trying to fix it. And after stacks and stacks of failed attempts, there was finally one that I thought had the potential to change things.”

The idea initially came out of a class that Douglas taught last year at Miami Ad School, about lowering barriers of entry to causes. “We arrived at an early form of this idea there, and it continued to evolve for the rest of the quarter and for months after. But the big ‘of-fucking-course’ moment was pre-packaging the marrow registration kits in boxes of bandages. Getting a little DNA from people while it’s already coming out of their paper cuts. It takes this very active thing, registering for a donor programme, and turns it into something so passive.”

The projects explored here feature creative ideas for charities that make it easy and interesting for people to donate time and money to their causes. Instead of being borne out of guilt or bullying, strategies that in the past have been as much associated with this sector as the good work it achieves, they are more subtle and hopefully encourage a longer term engagement with the charities than a one-off donation. “I love this trend of lowering barriers of entry into doing good things,” says Douglas. “I’ve always thought that it was a little unreasonable to ask people to go out of their way to give huge amounts of money or time to a charity. It’s easy for charities, but hard to those who are actually giving.

“If we can make it effortless for people to help each other, they will. That’s all we’re trying to do with this Help I Want to Save a Life initiative. Make it ridiculously easy for someone to do something ridiculously great.”

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