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Whether raising donations or raising awareness, charity campaigning has a long history. 

Take the “associational charities” of the 18th century – which saw the great and good such as painter Hogarth and composer Handel launching subscription concerts and events to fund the Foundling Hospital in Bloomsbury, rebranding its inhabitants as innocents rather than wantons, deserving of your charity, not your opprobrium.

There are three key audience responses embedded in charity advertising’s DNA – shock, empathy and fear.

Scroll forward two centuries to the first Save the Children campaign, launched just after World War One when its co-founder, Eglantyne Jebb, was arrested for distributing leaflets containing shocking images of famine-ravaged children under the headline: ‘Our Blockade has caused this – millions of children are starving to death’. She was found guilty, but the prosecuting council offered to pay her £5 fine – an early, tangible example of shock tactics bending the heart strings even in the offices of the law.

Above: Eglantyne Jebb, co-founder of Save the Children and an early advert highlighting child poverty and malnutrition.


There are three key audience responses embedded in charity advertising’s DNA – shock, empathy and fear, all wrapped up in the realisation that ‘it could be you’. Cast an eye across the charity campaigns and public service announcements of yesteryear and you’ll find revealing capsule reflections of that period’s societal concerns, attitudes, and crises, whether its foreign wars, natural disasters, or public health and safety warnings. 

In a digital environment awash with arresting, disturbing images, shock is not what it was.

Take those notorious PSAs for the “haunted generation” of 1970s children, sugary snack guzzlers soaking up the horrors of Lonely Water and its ilk; the stark hopelessness embedded in those Protect and Survive post-nuclear attack guides to survival, or the DHSS’s shocking, bombastic “don’t die of ignorance” AIDS campaign of the mid-1980s. 

The hard-hitting shock approach continued into the 2000s with the likes of Tony Kaye’s poster and PSA campaign for The Montana Meth Project, gritty, punchy and straight to the point. Kaye was one of a number of big names to lend their talents to the project – Darren Aronofsky and Alejandro González Iñárritu among them. Rey Mundo, then creative director at VB&P San Francisco, recalls their impact on the local community. “In Montana, a bunch of people were upset at the graphic nature of the work, and they wanted the council to take it all down, but a bunch of high school kids showed up to speak against that. It was a powerful moment for us.”

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Montana Meth Project – Laundromat

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Montana Meth Project – Junkie Den

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Montana Meth Project – Crash

Since then, of course, the media landscape has proliferated and multiplied to the point where our screen environment often looms larger than the one in which we live and breath. Fewer kids need to be warned from lonely waters these days – they’ve got better things to do indoors, in front of a screen. Which makes cutting through with real-world problems that much trickier. They’re so easy to skip or turn off. 

In a digital environment awash with arresting, disturbing images, shock is not what it was. Which means creatives are having to forego the time-honoured tactics of yore for a more stealthy, enveloping approach, one that works on the platforms of both heart and mind.

We wanted to make sure we were as good as the shows such as 24 Hours in A&E... After all, this is what the public was watching every evening in their millions.

Take the St John Ambulance TV campaign, headed by BBH’s chief creative officer, Ian Heartfield, which kicked off on a Sunday night during Downton back in 2012 with an arresting, uncomfortable debut that highlighted how a little First Aid knowledge could save the life of a loved one – its impact sharpened by the ordinariness of the setting. 

“For several years we had made what were arguably some of the most shocking charity ads of the time,” says Heartfield of the campaign, “from a boy falling from a tree in front of his dad, to a man recovering from cancer only to lose his life choking on a burger.” There were complaints to the ASA about this, and the subsequent controversy created more column inches and TV coverage than a media spend ever could. “It did the job of putting the charity firmly on the map,” says Heartfield. “But what it didn’t do was increase the number of people taking First Aid lessons. At this point it became clear that no amount of shock was going to get people over the apathy barrier.”

Thanks to the world being on our mobiles, we have all seen and heard of the most awful, shocking, terrifying things, much more so than in the past. We have become numb to horror.
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St. John's Ambulance – Helpless

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St John Ambulance – St John Ambulance: Save the Boy

So, he and the team took a different path – giving viewers of The Chokeables First Aid tips that could save the life of a baby. “We wanted people to actively engage in this film and share it – and the lesson –  among friends and family. This meant that shock tactics were out.” Cute animation replaced disturbing live-action, and a useful life lesson wrapped up in a bundle of charm replaced shock.

“One of the main issues any charitable cause faces is how to make it relevant to people’s everyday lives,” concludes Heartfield. “Competition for eyeballs and donations is intense, so which one is deserving of attention?  Is it the one that comes at the topic from an angle I have never seen before? The one that asks me to do something I hadn’t considered doing?  [The one that] teaches me something? Or [the one that] moves me in a way that makes it impossible for me not to take action?” 

St John Ambulance – The Chokeables

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When Hugh Todd, CD at MullenLowe London, started working with creative director Lovisa Silburn on We Are the NHS, he chose two contrasting approaches. The first, narrated by Maxine Peake, focused on the emotional dynamic our NHS inspires. “It needed to evoke pride. It needed to be emotional, to make people feel for this great institution and then to hopefully act and apply,” says Todd. When it came to impact, timing helped. “It first ran during the victorious England penalty shoot out in the World Cup so obviously we got people at a good moment,” says Todd. “We had an amazing response. People told us they had been crying while watching it – hopefully for good reasons.”

Empathy and engagement does not come through the eye alone. Sound, too, has deep emotional impact. 

The second spot covered IT and support roles – harder to pull the heart strings, so Todd went for a more purposeful, involving approach. “It appeared at New Year and needed to get people off their sofas and start considering taking an IT or support role in a place where you could make a difference. New Year is when people reassess their lives, so it was the right moment to talk to them.” 

Both spots were filmed on location over two days, with all the dramas of the hospital unfolding around them, and in their cameras. Todd’s benchmark, he adds, wasn’t other campaigns, but reality TV. “We wanted to make sure we were as good as the shows such as 24 Hours in A&E... After all, this is what the public was watching every evening in their millions.”

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NHS – We Are The NHS

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NHS – NHS England: We Are the NHS

When MD at Don’t Panic London Joe Wade started work on Most Shocking Second a Day for Save the Children in 2014, focusing on the plight of children in Syria’s civil war, neither in-your-face shock tactics nor a documentary approach were going to cut it. The war was in its third year, charity fatigue had set in, and Wade’s brief was to put its victims back on the agenda. “For many reasons and because of budgetary constraints, we knew we’d have to film in London, and that was the genesis for making it about a family in London,” he says. “We realised that would help from an empathy perspective; what if this was happening here?”

Each of the two films was delicately structured, their carefully measured story beats set to provoke empathy, and to bring the singularity of human suffering back to the agenda. “The first half is normal life, then there’s the bomb blast that makes them flee” says Wade, “and a lot of the scenes in the first half are mirrored in the second. Like when she’s brushing her hair, and later you have her hair falling out.”

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Save The Children – Save The Children: Most Shocking Second A Day

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Save The Children – Save The Children: Still The Most Shocking Second

Empathy and engagement does not come through the eye alone. Sound, too, has deep emotional impact. When BBH CD Nikki Lindman was approached by domestic violence charity Refuge to promote its partnership with Picturehouse Cinemas, she and the team focused on the experience of children in violent relationships. 

“Refuge’s core mission is to help women and children escape domestic violence,” says Lindman. “They have more children in their refuges than women, so we felt the experience of a child was a sensitive canvas on which to show the visceral ways in which abuse can take shape.” Keen to eschew gratuitous visual cliches, she focused on sound instead. “You never see the abuse,” she says. “You hear and feel what Jacob, the little boy, is going through.” 

Let’s face it, there are few things that can really shock us now in 2019.

And then the imagination takes over, and a powerful sense of identification kicks in. “We wanted to take full advantage of the incredible surround sound available in the Picturehouse cinemas,” adds Lindman, “to give the audience a truly enveloping experience of what Jacob and his mother are going through. To craft the sound design so that you don't see much, but you hear and feel everything, intimately. We needed this to be confronting, but also not visually overcomplicated or gimmicky, to get the most authentic version of what life is like in an abusive home, while still having a narrative with storytelling at its heart.”

Refuge – Hide and Seek

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BBH’s Heartfield agrees that visual shocks are no longer enough to tell a compelling story. “They can still have a place but let’s face it, there are few things that can really shock us now in 2019. Thanks to the world being on our mobiles, we have all seen and heard of the most awful, shocking, terrifying things, much more so than in the past. We have become numb to horror, so we have to try new ways to get through and tell our stories when we can.”

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