Opinion: Hot issue - Is charity advertising going through a change?

For the first time in several years, no charity appeared in the Advertising Standards Authority's annual list of the top 20 most complained-about ads. Opinion was divided on whether the sector's approach is getting 'softer'.

NO - John Neate, chief executive, The Prostate Cancer Charity

One year without charity adverts featuring in the Advertising Standards Authority's top 20 'most complained-about' list doesn't make a trend.

And it doesn't mean charity adverts have stopped being censored, as we have learnt.

Successfully getting across a message about your cause can be challenging for any charity. For us, getting across health messages about prostate cancer is notoriously hard.

We're dealing with men, their intimate body parts and cancer, which are not things men have traditionally wanted to talk about. The reflex advertising response to this challenge can often be to resort to the crude to stir things up. It takes real creative talent to find an approach that does not gratuitously offend, but engages.

Last year's 'squish' radio ad is a real case in point. It used humour to debunk men's anxieties about the digital rectal examination. It wasn't rude and it wasn't crude. Yet it hit the spot, raised awareness of prostate cancer and stimulated discussion.

Ironically, the only people who were offended by this advert were those working at the Radio Advertising Clearance Centre, whose censorship served only to generate even more media interest.

YES - Steve Stretton, creative partner, Archibald Ingall Stretton

There is no question that the confrontational approach and shock tactics that have characterised charity advertising in the past have been virtually absent of late.

Many of the highest profile charities have chosen to take a more upbeat approach, highlighting the benefits of their work and the positive impact donations can have.

There was plenty of evidence to suggest that the old approach was ripe for a change, but too many organisations are now embracing the same tactics, leaving numerous charities poorly differentiated.

This is becoming a definite problem for fundraisers. Rather than adopting a distinctive positioning, many charities seem to be merging into one, even to the point when they are encroaching on each other's territories, broadening their remits to include areas that, historically, have not been central to their sphere of activity at all.

The upshot of all this is that potential donors now find it hard to distinguish between organisations. This cannot possibly be good news for charities in the long term, so it would seem likely that we'll see, if not a return to the shock tactics of old, a greater focus on creating distinctive campaigns in the near future.

NO - Martin Galton, creative director, Hooper Galton

I wouldn't say that charity advertising is getting softer. There's plenty to suggest that the real reason today's charity ads fail to cause outrage is the fact that people are suffering from complete charity fatigue.

There has been so much charity communication in recent years, across so many different media, that people have become blind to it.

Hard hitters such as Barnado's and the RSPCA have bashed us over the heads once too often for us to care any more. Then there are the chuggers, maildrops by the ton and, these days, an ever increasing number of emails.

It's reached the point where you can't move without seeing a picture of a dead dog or a heroin addict shooting up.

The broader charity sector needs to realise that more subtle ways are required to wake people up, and some are already cottoning on to this fact. The recent Greenpeace campaign is a great example of creative that doesn't seek to shock, but still manages to be arresting.

Using comedy as its weapon, it features Eddie Izzard as controller of the universe, deciding the fate of a soiled and wheezing planet Earth. It's hilarious, but it's also powerful and provocative.

NO - Imogen Wilson, head of marketing and brand management, Shelter

The question is less about whether the sector is getting softer and more about us being cleverer and more creative. For a charity such as Shelter, with limited resources, it is about making the biggest possible impact through a more targeted approach that maximises PR.

For example, we needed something smart to amplify our message on overcrowding to the Government. By placing a satirical advert in Westminster tube station, people in power had no choice but to take notice. And it worked - to date, this specific advert has been mentioned twice in Commons debates.

There is also an element of public desensitisation to hard-hitting charity advertising. The intrusive tactics used by charities such as the NSPCC and Barnardo's, although successful at the time, have been done. Charities now need to come up with innovative ways of attracting attention.

We were very successful when we used a different kind of shock tactic in our recent 'naked bottoms' poster campaign to promote our red chair exhibition. Lots of press coverage and a packed venue proved that an element of fun, appropriately used and targeted, can help a serious message about bad housing hit home.

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