Why the BHF continues to use a controversial advert

Establishing a dialogue with supporters is the key to the British Heart Foundation's success, says Susannah Birkwood

The classroom advert
The classroom advert

Imagine you're a pupil, sitting in a classroom and getting on with your work. Your father appears. "I can't come home tonight," he says. "I'm not going to be around any more."

"When are you coming back?" you ask. "I'm sorry," he replies. "Look after your mum." He disappears. At that moment you're called into the head teacher's office, where your mother is waiting. She says your dad has died of heart disease.

A TV advert depicting this scenario, produced by the British Heart Foundation, was the sixth most-complained-about advert in 2015, according to the Advertising Standards Authority. The ASA received 200 complaints about it which were not upheld; the BHF also received more than 400.

The BHF might have been expected to shelve the advert, which ran for the first time in August last year. Instead it decided to broadcast it again. "We ran the campaign again in January 2016 and we'll almost certainly run it a third time," says Carolan Davidge, the charity's director of marketing and engagement.

This was because Heart disease is Heartless, as it was called, turned out to be the most emotionally engaging advert the charity had ever produced. It discovered this by using a tool supplied by the market research agency BrainJuicer which allows organisations to monitor people's thoughts and feelings as they watch adverts.

Davidge says that the charity also found out, through focus group research with 600 people across the UK, that 84 per cent thought the campaign was powerful, while a similar percentage agreed that it was memorable.

She says that the advert is part of a wider marketing strategy which the BHF launched in February 2015 to get people more emotionally connected with the charity. This was just four months after Davidge joined the charity,

"When I first joined the BHF, I learned that people perceive heart disease quite differently to how they perceive cancer," she says. "People in focus groups had a fearful response to cancer - they would literally recoil from the word - whereas heart disease was seen as a lifestyle condition."

These early focus groups also revealed that many people saw the BHF as more of a public health organisation than a charity that spends £100m a year on medical research. "So that was what the campaign set out to address," says Davidge.

And to a certain extent, it has. The latest focus group research, carried out last September, shows the advert made 45 per cent of participants think differently about heart disease, while 40 per cent said it made them think differently about the BHF.

There are several other elements to this marketing strategy, which Davidge says will last for at least three years. These include making the BHF website mobile-friendly and increasing the charity's presence on social media channels such as Instagram and YouTube. The charity's emphasis in using these platforms is on establishing dialogue with supporters rather than just advertising to them.

The charity has moved away from some of its previous shock campaigns, such as its 2012 advert showing Vinnie Jones violently pumping the chest of a heart attack victim, or the 2004 Fatty Cigarette advert which showed in detail the damage that smoking can do to the arteries. Last year, however, the BHF fell from fourth to fifth in the rankings of YouGov's 2015 CharityIndex. So have the changes had a negative effect? Davidge thinks it is more likely that it is too early to say whether the new strategy is paying off.

"It takes time," she says. "Please don't think that we've suddenly managed to resolve things over the last year. We've done some great communications, but I think it's likely that it will take us until 2020 before we see the real changes in people's perceptions around heart disease and the BHF."

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