What is it?
Last month, Harrison’s Fund, a charity that funds research into Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy, set out to highlight the lack of public awareness of the condition with a controversial advertising campaign. They placed two versions of the same advert on MSN.co.uk for two days, asking people to donate £5 to "save Harrison from a slow, painful death". However, there was one important difference between them: one featured the image of a child, the other a picture of a dog.
Both adverts linked through to a page on the charity’s website that explains the rationale for the campaign and asks for donations. This week the charity has released the results of the experiment, which revealed that the dog received twice as many clicks as the picture of the real Harrison, the eight-year-old boy after whom the charity is named.
The charity ran a print advert in the London Evening Standard, created by the advertising agency AIS London. This used the same picture of a dog and the same slogan as the web advert, but said in the small print: "This isn't Harrison by the way; this is a picture of a dog I found on the internet. Harrison is my eight-year-old son."
Why did the charity opt for such a controversial advert?
Alex Smith, Harrison’s father and the founder of the charity, says on the its website that public awareness of Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy in the UK is below 1 per cent. Dogs Trust, he says, raised £71m more than Harrison's Fund in 2014. He says that animal charities do lots of good work, but his argument is that "in the real world, few of us would actually choose to save a dog over a dying child".
What the charity says
Smith is aware that the campaign divides opinion, and is open about the negative feedback he has received from some people who feel they were "tricked" when they clicked on the image of the dog. But he doesn’t regret his decision. "I'm sorry if some people find our tactics upsetting," he writes on the website, "but the awful truth is that my son is dying and I'm willing to do whatever it takes to save him." He adds that the vast majority of responses have been positive and the charity has recieved an "overwhelming" level of support.
Smith's comments are perhaps unsurprising, given that Harrison’s Fund was also responsible for 2013’s I Wish My Son Had Cancer campaign, which employed similar shock tactics to raise awareness of this little-known condition.
Third Sector verdict
Smith argues that "being blatant is one of the only ways small charities can gain the same traction and and voice that larger organisations do". It’s fair to say that by using these tactics the charity has gained more visibility than it would have done with a more traditional effort.
Some might say that judging the income and level of support of large animal charities against those supporting Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy, which affects one in 3,500 male children, is not an entirely fair comparison. However, it’s refreshing to see a campaign that genuinely makes people think about where they donate their money, and why – even if it has alienated a few animal lovers in the process.