Case Study: St John Ambulance

The charity's shocking new Helpless campaign got people talking about first aid

A still from St John Ambulance's video
A still from St John Ambulance's video
  • This article was corrected on 5 November 2012 - see final paragraph

The number of lives that might have been saved by first aid each year matches those lost to cancer. If this surprises you, it is exactly what St John Ambulance was banking on when it unveiled its latest campaign, Helpless, in September.

Using Office of National Statistics death registration data, the first-aid charity's medical experts calculated that up to 14,000 people die each year in situations where knowledge of first aid could have saved their lives - the same number that die from cancer.

"The statistic was shocking, but we wanted to contextualise it," says Emma Sheppard, head of PR at St John Ambulance. "We knew drawing comparisons between the two statistics would make an impact and get people talking about first aid."

At the heart of the campaign is a film that follows the journey of a man who is diagnosed with cancer, undergoes treatment and survives, only to choke to death at a family gathering because no one knows the basic first aid that could have saved his life.

At the end of the film, viewers are encouraged to text for a free first-aid guide or visit the charity's website for more information.

The film was first aired on TV during the first episode of the new series of ITV's Downton Abbey. As the advert was shown, the charity encouraged online debate and planned engaging posts and tweets to run throughout the campaign. It also secured broadcast coverage on Daybreak, Sky, BBC News and ITV News, and the issue was discussed on Jeremy Vine's BBC Radio 2 show.

Adverts on social media and sponsored Facebook posts also increased the visibility of the campaign.

Despite some criticism of the upsetting nature of the film and its use of statistics, Sheppard is adamant that the shock tactics were necessary to get the campaign's message across.

"We're sorry for those who felt our tactics were too harsh, but this campaign has saved lives and will continue to do so," she says. "It's shocking when someone dies who could have had a chance to live."

It has been estimated that the advert reached 14.1 million people, and the film has been viewed 150,000 times on YouTube. About 20,000 requests for the free first-aid guide have been received and 17,500 apps have been downloaded.

EXPERT VIEW: Lara Samuels, director, The Communications Hub 

It's often said that it takes a lot to shock us these days.

St John Ambulance proves that it can still be done and that it can help to drive home a crucially important message.

Unlike many charity campaigns, this isn't about donating money, but about ensuring that people have the first-aid skills that are clearly lacking in most of us.

Unlike curing cancer, learning first aid is within everyone's reach. By emphasising that, the campaign focuses on a tangible issue, putting viewers in that 'what if?' position and giving them a way to manage it.

The publicity that the campaign has achieved is testament to its ability to tell us something new. 'Shocking' can be good if it spurs people into action on something they might never have thought of before.

As for me, I'm off to brush up on my first-aid skills ...

Creativity: 4
Delivery: 5
Total: 9 out of 10

  • The article says that 14,000 people die each year in situations where knowledge of first aid could have saved their lives, but the number should be 140,000

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