Opinion: Do ads damage your cause? Give 'em hell

Nick Cater

How many ways can charities use advertising? For recruitment and fundraising? Check. For advocacy and campaigns? Check, especially when controversy extracts more bang from budget bucks. You can even get media mileage by letting the ad agency creatives get gritty or icky so their pro bono efforts get banned, get famous and get awards.

However, there's another way to use advertising: complain about someone else's advert to focus the media on an issue, pump up the political pressure for action and raise your profile.

Advertising lives inside a bubble that bears no relation to reality.

Its stereotypes, hype, dubious claims and inanity offer endless targets for attack. You deal with safety, head injuries or the environment? Try the promotion of speed by this or that car company. Gay rights? Have a go at the objectionably unfunny Maltesers sponsorship of Will and Grace.

Debt, poverty, homelessness? Tackle bottom-feeding ads for loans and credit cards.

Thus we have the enjoyable spectacle of Carol Vorderman under fire for squandering her talents promoting one of those loan-consolidation companies that infest TV viewing, alongside stubborn stains. Two charities - debt experts at the Consumer Credit Counselling Service and money educationalists Credit Action - are not happy.

The problem with Vorderman, they say, is that she promotes long-term loans secured on homes. These are appropriate for very few, yet her adverts imply they are a solution for most people in debt, fail to suggest better alternatives and say nothing about the risks of high costs, repossessed houses, broken families and all the rest.

The charities have the support of high-profile financial journalist Martin Lewis, his popular website moneysavingexpert.com and tens of thousands of Vorderman critics signing a petition to ask her to stop advertising secured loans.

With consumers owing a trillion pounds, they might have urged her instead to use her credibility, and that legendary ability to add up, to help the millions of people with debt problems. As I write, she has yet to even comment.

This anti-ad campaign, which did not even need a formal complaint to the Advertising Standards Authority, offers a template for achieving the double whammy of attacking damaging advertising and promoting your cause.

It's simple: get your facts straight, choose a good target, build up grass-roots support - and give 'em hell.

- Nick Cater is a consultant and writer: catercharity@yahoo.co.uk.

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