Matthew Sherrington: We can't explain everything on a poster - campaigns are more like shop windows

Communicating complex issues is not easy, writes our columnist

Matthew Sherrington
Matthew Sherrington

So what was it for you – white and gold, or black and blue? If #TheDress passed you by, you might have caught the piggy-back campaign by South Africa's Salvation Army, with its image of a badly bruised woman lying in that white and gold dress, under the caption "Why is it so hard to see black and blue?" There was also Women's Aid's interactive digital billboard, cleverly urging people not to look the other way, and showing a bruised face heal as you looked at it. The former was a campaign riding a viral wave about something quite frivolous; the latter was an innovative installation. Both drew attention to the deadly serious issue of violence against women.

The Salvation Army campaign was mostly lauded for being quick and clever, but also came in for flak. It played on frivolity. It had no call to action. It perpetuated myths about domestic abuse being only physical and didn't address issues of emotional abuse, power and control. It didn't tell the full story. What was it raising awareness of?

I've often heard "raising awareness" used as justification for a failed campaign that was intended to do something else. And yet our values of liberal enlightenment mean we are hard-wired to value the benefit of public education and awareness. Charities deal with complicated issues and they have complex wants and needs. They want to change things. They want people to be aware of and understand their issues. They want to be understood. But they need to raise money. They need profile. And they need to explain everything. Awareness and profile primarily serve other organisational purposes such as fundraising, influence and action, but are hard to justify as goals on their own.

It's an uncomfortable home truth that in a complicated world of saturated media messages, we like to consume information in simple soundbites and snapshots (never mind reading your article or blog: "I saw your tweet" will do). Or, to put it more accurately, we like to consume everyone else's information in this way. But when it comes to our own issue, we read it all, we know it all and it is imperative everyone else does too. That means we overdo it, moving on in our analysis and complicating our message before our audience has caught up.

Communicating complex issues simply is not easy. You can never say everything, and what you do say depends on the purpose of the piece. A full exposition of the issues is asking too much of a poster. Some communications are shop windows, hopefully engaging enough for people to take action or to want to learn more, either now or next time. Public-facing fundraising fits this bill, as does the publicising of services. It is hoped they present enough of the issue in a way that's engaging enough to provide an opportunity to continue the conversation. Awareness, otherwise, delivers little.

So was the Sally Army's campaign a waste of time because it neither told the full story nor did much on the engagement front? No. I think it has to be seen for what it is: clever opportunism getting lucky, going viral and getting people to talk about an important issue – however superficially.

Matthew Sherrington is a consultant on strategy, fundraising and communications at Inspiring Action Consultancy

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