Matthew Sherrington: Shock, sex and rivalry - do campaigns need to be controversial to work?

Campaigns on female genital mutilation, the dangers of Aids and the intractability of pancreatic cancer were launched recently: Matthew Sherrington argues that what works isn't always what's right, and that charities have to make hard decisions

Matthew Sherrington
Matthew Sherrington

I first learnt about female genital mutilation in my 20s, when I was a volunteer teacher in Sudan. It was done to almost all girls in the area where I was living -  probably still is. Young girls were cut without anaesthetic in circumstances with huge risk of infection and death; their legs then tied together for a month while the stitches healed. Women had it done to their daughters, while men knew, would talk about it, but accepted it with a shrug as "women's business". Women would often need cutting open again when they were married because their stitching was so tight, emphasising the patriarchal origins of the practice. It was horrific on so many levels.

That the incidence of female genital mutilation is apparently increasing in the UK warrants the excellent campaign launched last week by 17-year-old Fahma Mohamed, in the Guardian and on Change.org, for more education in schools. Only education can break the cycle when it's justified as a cultural practice.

But given what female genital mutilation involves, I was rather surprised at the widespread use by campaigners and media alike, of the sanitised acronym, FGM. It could be a food additive. Handy for twitter (#endFGM, so that you know) no doubt, but this isn't a campaign to get an acronym into our vocabulary; it's to raise awareness of something extremely nasty. I can't help thinking the accepted shorthand of those in the know has got in the way of greater communications impact. Say it how it is, in all its horror: female genital mutilation.

So does it always take the horror of a problem being thrust in your face to get you to notice? Wrong question, obviously, as it depends on the issue and how cleverly you can make it relevant to your audience, in a way they will connect with and respond to. The International HIV/AIDS Alliance has taken a different tack, though still shocking in its own way. It was clear to them that talking up the danger of AIDS was not doing it for anyone. Using Valentine's Day as a hook, their TV ad was screened as a one-off on Channel 4, at 11.45 on Friday night. You can see it online here.

I stayed up to watch, but was foiled by my teenager returning home at just the wrong moment, and had to mute it. (Well, it is 90 seconds of ecstatic vocal shagging - that will get you clicking), and the embarrassment would have been mutual. It’s saucy enough for YouTube to have taken down the original format. What's the angle? Come Together, Play Safe; click and get a goody box of fun. Mark Phillips hilariously recounts how his agency arrived at the concept; credit to International HIV/AIDS Alliance for going for it, because I'm told that early response has been strong.

Which brings us to the most controversial campaign of the week, Pancreatic Cancer Action's "I wish I had breast/testicular cancer", highlighting the lower survival rate of a cancer that is often not diagnosed until too late. The campaign was heavily criticised by other cancer charities for drawing the comparison and - to their mind - diminishing the suffering of other cancer sufferers, and was widely rounded upon on twitter for being insensitive and upsetting. But the charity argued that it was representing a legitimate perspective of its own constituency.

You can't argue with the fact that it did its job of raising awareness, hitting national as well as sector media. Anyone not hear about it? The furore has had the issue of cancer survival in the news for a few days, which can’t be bad; and I doubt anyone is going away thinking breast or testicular cancer isn’t serious. As one senior charity campaigner tweeted: "the shock of comparing with cancers where symptoms are better known is very effective". But is "it works" a good enough justification, if some find it distasteful?

It is reminiscent of a couple of other long-standing debates about representation - the "nothing about us without us" demand in the disability sector, and in the area of international development fundraising, how to show the need that provokes response while representing the dignity and agency of poor people. While there's considerable disdain for some fundraising messaging on poverty, the evidence is clear, because fundraising is testable, measurable and quantifiable. Ignore that, as ActionAid did a few years ago, and you get a celebrated failure.

That's not to say it's a binary choice - it's hugely grey. But what works in fundraising or campaigning may not always be what's right. That’s not for me to judge here. But charities shouldn't be under the illusion that they can have their cake and eat it. This is always going to be a fine line to walk, and charities are going to have to make their own choices. What you need to know is that you have to decide.

Matthew Sherrington is a specialist in the charity sector, consulting on organisational strategy, fundraising and communications. Follow him on Twitter

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