VIEWPOINT: Why the jury's out on the ads that shock for charity

Andrew Cracknell

Andrew Cracknell, a former Bates Europe creative director with 35 years' experience in the business, warns charities against approving striking advertising that might be clever, but that doesn't really work.

Unlike the 461 complainants, I can't get worked up about the Barnardo's ads. Even after 35 years in advertising the things people complain about still amaze me, and you always multiply your chances of outrage by including a baby somewhere in your ads. To me these ads are only mildly shocking and it doesn't need a professional interest to understand their motive and their relevance. What is far more worrying is when both motive and relevance are suspect.

We in advertising have learned the value of shock as a tool to cut through the daily clutter. We've learned the value of metaphor, to illuminate the inexplicable, the dense or the plain boring. And we've also learned that just as the best teachers are not the ones who only tell you things but those who coax you to conclusions, the best ads leave a little bit for you to do.

But in all this, we sometimes forget that our job is not simply to communicate a brief, it's to get people to do or think something they weren't doing before. We're here to use communications to persuade. And in the case of public service and charity advertising, it's usually to persuade people of something they'd really rather resist, so we ought to be even more persuasive. At the same time, charity and public service advertising is seen by agencies as a creative opportunity. Every day of the week someone, somewhere, is saying their agency ought to get some charity business "as a creative showcase", rightly identifying that the human condition is more interesting than soap powder and so should lead to more dramatic and famous work. They see it as a proven shortcut to winning awards - and the fame and success they bring - and that's when you need to take care.

He stands there, suitably sheepish, just a touch smug - heavily pregnant.

"Would you be more careful if it was you that got pregnant?" the headline demands, making a point about birth control and protected sex to young, male Britons. It ought to be a powerful form of argument, asking someone to put themselves in the shoes of the person whose life they may be about to devastate. It's one of the five press ads most admired by advertising creative people, and it won countless major advertising awards. But I'm not sure how well it does the job.

Ads, like all communications, are not only about what is said, they're just as much about how it's said. And when I saw this ad, I laughed. Then I thought how clever it was. Wished I'd done it. Then had another chuckle.

And that's my problem. While it makes its point, it makes it in such a comical way that we can admire the ad for its own sake and then walk away, scot-free. It's a joke isn't it? It's an impossible cartoon notion, a blokey gag. We don't want to have to stop and think about getting girls pregnant, and this ad, with its amusing, knowing joke, does nothing to stop us. It had one enormous strength in that its cheekiness attracted massive attention in free column inches and airtime, a technique new at the time, and that could have been the real spur to changing attitudes.

But I doubt it.

Now I'm sure someone somewhere connected with the ad would be able to produce all sorts of evidence to prove its success, although how that could be gauged I have no idea. I admit I'm expressing opinion, not fact and figure here, but there was another ad, highly awarded and loved by the advertising business, designed to raise money for Guide Dogs for the Blind, which highlights my doubts. The image was of a man with a dog's eyes superimposed over his own, in a similar vein to the Tories' 'devil eyes' ad featuring Tony Blair.

It was clever, intriguing even, and this time its persuasive power could be proven by the funds it raised. The client was honourably reluctant to disclose the results, but admitted "it was one of the least successful ads we've ever run". Did we admire its cleverness without it touching our emotions? An ad of the head, not of the heart?

Picking up a major award a few weeks ago was an anti-racism poster commissioned by student groups. The Union Jack, rearranged to make a swastika, is a clever graphic - but what does it tell you that you didn't know already?

In what way does it make you feel differently about the issue? Why the award? Maybe, as with the Guide Dogs ad, those who dish out the gongs are too often in favour of puzzles over real persuasion, and turning advertising into a comprehension test.

Of course, it often works like a dream for all concerned. There is some extraordinarily powerful charity advertising produced. If I had to single out any one organisation for consistent quality, it would be the NSPCC, which, over the years, has produced work that is highly creative, thoughtful, arresting - and persuasive and highly awarded.

But on other occasions, as with the Guide Dogs client who was unwilling to criticise pro bono work, maybe there's a little bit of reluctance on the part of the clients to get as critically involved as they should.

But you know better than anyone that your coffers are too small and your resources too stretched for you to make allowances for anyone else. Either the job is done properly, or it shouldn't be done at all, and it's irrelevant whether it's being done for nothing or at a reduced fee.

Don't be intimidated with our jargon and expertise - you're a consumer too. And it's simply too important for you not to demand work that is persuasive to the real world - and not the artificial world of advertising awards juries.

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