Has shock advertising had its day?

Cancer Research UK's recent obesity campaign provoked consternation over its apparent body shaming, but controversial advertising has long had a place in the charity sector. Liam Kay investigates whether shock tactics still work and the effect they have on the charities that deploy them

"We are writing to ask that you stop the current advertising campaign run by Cancer Research UK." This was the opening line from a letter signed by 800 academics, healthcare professionals and advocates, raising their objections to a campaign by the cancer charity that compared smoking and obesity. The adverts – mocked-up cigarette packets with "obesity" splashed on the label – generated substantial online criticism too, with some tweets accusing the charity of stigmatising people who are overweight. It was the second time in the past year that CRUK has run a controversial campaign about obesity’s links to cancer.

There is an old saying that "there’s no such thing as bad publicity", and it is a proverb that has been well tested over the years. From Malcolm McLaren and the Sex Pistols’ scandalous 1977 God Save the Queen Thames cruise, which culminated in arrests and widespread bans of the single – but still got to number two in the charts – to bloodied newborns used to sell clothing from United Colors of Benetton in the 1990s, there is a long history of controversy being used to generate attention.

Charities are no strangers to controversial advertising campaigns, with CRUK being the latest in a long line of organisations attempting to trigger a change of hearts and minds through uncomfortable imagery. But do shock tactics and controversy still work? Can they get cut-through in a world of Fortnite, Tarantino films and Game of Thrones? And do they actually provide long-term benefits?

Shock adverts are designed to break through the noise of modern life, using distressing, startling or offensive images to grab the public’s attention. Done well, research has shown, the images have helped to shift public perceptions of issues in the past – one study from the Journal of Advertising Research said that shocking content in an advertisement significantly increased attention, benefited memory and positively influenced behaviour around HIV/Aids prevention.

Reuben Turner, executive creative director at the advertising firm Good Agency, believes that controversial advertising can be effective in grabbing people’s attention and generating a short-term boost in support, but he warns that the content has to be seen as coming from a place of truth.

Stretched truth

"Once upon a time there were controversial adverts that stretched the truth in a particular way, and people know that is not the truth any more," Turner says. "Being truthful doesn’t mean you can’t be controversial, be noticed, surprise and shock people, but you can’t pull the wool over people’s eyes."

Where a campaign hits upon a kernel of truth and uses effective imagery and wording to put its point across, controversy can have a transformative impact. Harrison’s Fund is one particularly successful example (see below), with its campaigns comparing the public knowledge of cancer or support of animal charities with that of Duchenne muscular dystrophy. The adverts generated widespread attention for their taglines "I wish my son had cancer" and "I wish my son was a dog". Save the Children’s Most Shocking Second A Day campaign, which highlighted the refugee crisis in Syria through the gaze of a British child, was another successful deployment of shock tactics to help the public build a personal link to a civil war happening thousands of miles away.

Nick Pride, fundraising strategy director at the marketing firm WPNC, says that if controversial tactics are to work they need to fit within a charity’s brand. "It is legitimate for a charity with a very clear mission to take on very significant problems and challenges they need to find ways to solve, and to help start changing the way society is thinking," he says. "That can create controversy, but it’s often how you need to start a conversation."

But the strategy comes with risks. Face-to-face fundraisers, for example, could be left with fewer donations and having to explain the rationale behind a campaign to passers-by. It’s vital, then, for a charity to bring a wide range of staff into conversations around a potentially controversial campaign early in the process, Pride says, and make sure that the approach taken is in keeping with the charity’s image. Failure to do so could land an organisation in hot water. In 2009 the WWF was forced to apologise after an advert in Brazil used an image of numerous planes flying towards the old World Trade Center in New York to make a comparison with the 2004 south-east Asian tsunami. The campaign was arguably far removed from the charity’s purpose of conservation and was heavily criticised for its clear reference to the 11 September 2001 terrorist attacks in the US.

Charities that want to spark shock responses should also note that the threshold for an advertisement to be banned has fallen considerably in recent years, with private sector adverts banned for offensive material in a way that rarely happened in the days of United Colors of Benetton, such as for reinforcing gender stereotypes. It’s hard to imagine the Barnardo’s adverts run in 1999 – one of which depicted a baby shooting heroin (right) – would be released without widespread approbation, despite the dramatic effect these adverts had in highlighting the consequences of childhood neglect and disadvantage, with other adverts showing infants preparing to commit suicide or drinking a bottle of whisky.

But charities do have some leeway in tackling controversial material. Matt Wilson, senior media relations officer at the Advertising Standards Authority, says the nature of charities’ work allows them to use controversial content in a way that other organisations cannot, as long as it remains in context.

"The starting point is that charities are subject to the same advertising rules as every other UK advertiser, but there is an acknowledged and on-the-record leeway and latitude that we do grant them because of the nature and scope of their work and the issues they are dealing with," he says.

"We accept that charities deal with hard-hitting and often sensitive and controversial topics in a way that a normal business doesn’t, and there’s a need to raise awareness of those issues."

However, Turner warns there is a risk that a controversial campaign can turn people away, rather than make them sit up and take notice of the issues. While donations are often generated for charities in the immediate aftermath, there is potential for longer-term damage.

"You don’t tend to hear from the people you alienate," he says. "You can see the donations coming in, but you don’t tend to measure how many people are turned off, people who turn away and who will never support you in the future."


As such, charities run the risk of becoming "less relevant and less loved" if they run too many controversial adverts over a sustained period of time, according to Turner. People want to see that a charity is making progress, which means that charities should be careful not to become obsessed with showing a lot of cruelty and misery in adverts, and instead demonstrate how things are improving.

CRUK is a good example of a charity that has tried to demonstrate this, he says, having run a number of campaigns showing how people have recovered from cancer. While controversial adverts can be a valuable part of their arsenal, Turner says, charities should always work to balance them with more positive advertising that demonstrates progress, and works to retain public trust and faith in the organisation’s work and its effects.

"If you never demonstrate or talk about progress, people build up the subliminal impression that what you are after is their money at all costs," he adds.

This partly explains why there is currently a trend towards positive storytelling, personified by the recent Story of Alice campaign by Save the Children UK (left). The campaign told the story of Alice Sumo, a midwife working in a Save the Children-funded clinic in Liberia, west Africa, and the more than 800 children in the local area who are named after her. It has become a local tradition in that part of Liberia to name children born at the clinic after Alice. The campaign saw double the number of website visits compared with the charity’s previous campaign and a significant increase in the number of legacy packs that were downloaded.

Ian Boardman, client strategy director of Consider Creative, the agency behind Story of Alice, says that the advertisement was not born from a desire to have a "positive" advert, but from research about what would drive people to remember the charity in their wills. Market research showed that trust, a personal connection and an explanation of the charity’s impact were the most important reasons why people give to a charity, and the Alice story ticked those boxes.

The motivation for running an advert such as Story of Alice is very different from that for running a controversial advert, Boardman says, and is arguably a more challenging one to fulfil, given that charities have to compete with wider popular culture for attention in today’s world.

"We’re exposed to much more provoking imagery these days," Boardman says. "A couple of scrolls through Instagram and you’ve found something that is more sensational or shocking than something we saw five years ago. I appreciate that sometimes there might feel a need for charities to keep up with that, but I am not entirely sure it is a successful strategy.

"We work with organisations that have extraordinary stories to tell, as well as a duty to show what they do and build up some trust in the charity."

So while there can be a time and place for provoking audiences and eliciting a reaction, shock tactics are unlikely to foster lifetime relationships with donors in the same way as a positive, aspirational outlook.

"I personally believe that building a personal connection with our audience and relating to potential supporters is a better way forward than trying to shock," Boardman concludes.

"I don’t think that’s what the public wants from charities."

Harrison’s Fund: ‘You can’t do adverts like this for shock’s sake’

One of the most controversial adverts in the charity sector of the past decade was the Harrison’s Fund 2013 campaign I Wish My Son Had Cancer. The charity was set up by Alex Smith to raise awareness of Duchenne muscular dystrophy, which wastes muscles and restricts lifespan, after his son Harrison was diagnosed with the condition. A follow-up campaign bore the strapline "I wish my son was a dog".

Smith says the campaigns were attempts to get attention for a relatively rare illness, contrasting the awareness of Duchenne with the ubiquity of cancer advertising and the popularity of animal charities.

"I was just really frustrated that, wherever I looked, all I saw were the big charities with lots of money putting advertising everywhere," Smith says. "I felt like nobody knew what Duchenne was. My initial brief was that I wanted people to stop and listen, just for a minute, to understand what Duchenne is and why I am saying what I am saying."

When the campaign was being crafted, the issue that kept recurring was the lack of knowledge about Duchenne and the absence of any effective treatment, let alone a cure. The two campaigns followed that idea and generated substantial controversy and criticism, especially online, while being feted in the advertising world to the extent that it is taught in universities.

The two campaigns raised £500,000 for the charity and led to a documentary about Smith, Harrison and his fundraising efforts. Smith says the campaigns had a transformative effect on the charity, but cautions that the personal link to Duchenne was what made the adverts especially effective.

"For a small charity like ours, being brave enough to stand up and say something like that is a big thing," Smith says. "You can’t do it just for shock’s sake: people see straight through that. It makes sense only when it is real. When it comes from a place of truth and honesty, then it makes a difference."

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