Change makers: Barnardo's

A new monthly series on ground-breaking charity comms campaigns starts with the heroin baby adverts launched by the children's charity in 1999

Barnardo's campaign Giving Children Back Their Future
Barnardo's campaign Giving Children Back Their Future

In 1999, the children's charity Barnardo's hit the headlines with a series of controversial adverts that depicted children in adult situations.

The campaign, called Giving Children Back Their Future, consisted of seven press adverts that featured shocking images, such as a baby injecting heroin, a toddler clutching a bottle of whisky, and another infant preparing to commit suicide.

The adverts, by agency Bartle Bogle Hegarty, photographed by Nick Georghiou, aimed to show the potentially disastrous adulthoods that await many of the disadvantaged and vulnerable young people the charity works with.

Kate Sloan, brand marketing manager at Barnardo's, says the campaign was designed to help the charity to attract a much younger subscriber base. Barnardo's had stopped running traditional children's homes in the 1960s and closed its last home in 1989, but was still strongly associated with orphanages - an image that threatened to make it seem irrelevant to the younger generation.

Most of the charity's subscribers were aged over 55 and there was a low level of public knowledge among all age groups about its contemporary work.

"We had two specific 'business' aims of the campaign: first, to attract a younger subscriber base and, second, to build engagement with new and existing supporters to increase our regular donor base," says Sloan.

The hard-hitting adverts attracted complaints, but the charity says the campaign was not intended to cause offence or distress. "We wanted people to realise that, by means of intervention from organisations such as Barnardo's, things can change," says Sloan.

The campaign had the desired effect, making a major contribution to the charity's fundraising income in its first 29 months, and the majority of new donors were aged under 55. The proportion of regular donors - as opposed to those making one-off donations - also increased, from 3 to 29 per cent, while the media coverage of the campaign had a PR value of more than £1m.

The legacy of the campaign was, however, of greater value to the charity than the money it raised. It set the tone of Barnardo's brand communications until its 2007 Believe in Children rebrand.

"It positioned Barnardo's as a modern, relevant and contemporary charity," says Sloan.

EXPERT VIEW: Peter Gilheany, director, Forster

Peter Gilheany, director, ForsterBarnardo's wasn't the first charity to use shock to get through to people, but these adverts stick in the mind because they were so well executed and came from what, at the time, seemed a surprising source. Looking back, I think the adverts made me view the charity in a different way and made me think more about the fate awaiting some children in the UK. So from the perspective of raising awareness for brand and cause, they were hugely effective.

The law of diminishing returns applies in particular to shock advertising, however, so it is not a sustainable way of communicating. To draw a parallel, I loved the first Police Academy film, but I had completely lost interest by the time the seventh instalment, Police Academy: Mission To Moscow, came along. These adverts were effective jolts, changing perceptions of charity and cause for many people - but Barnardo's was right to move on from them when it did, before surprise turned to apathy, or even cynicism.

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