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Shock no more?

28 August 2012

A new report from the Advertising Standards Authority is making waves for fundraising and advocacy campaigners, forcing us to re-examine the way we connect with the public, but what do its conclusions really mean and how best can we respond?

The key line of the report which has charities most worried, states that many of the participants in its research felt that some charity adverts contained offensive content that went too far in seeking to make people feel uncomfortable or guilty, or used imagery that was considered too distressing.

But from a charities point of view shock tactics can be very effective. Barnardo’s controversial campaign on domestic child abuse in 2008 resulted in a 100% uplift in visitors to the website and a reported 50% increase in the number of people wanting to donate to Barnardo’s after exposure to the advert.

The first thing to say is don’t panic! The report also highlights that levels of offense haven’t increased over the last ten years, and the vast majority of people have not felt personally offended. So while the report should be the wakeup call the industry needs, we certainly don’t need to throw the baby out with the bath water. It does however seem to raise two key questions…

1. Do we need to use offensive content to move people?

I’m not the first to note that many, many more people have cried over the last couple of John Lewis campaigns than have over any number of charity campaigns. Too often our sector relies on the strength of our imagery to speak for itself, without using the full range of advertising tricks to really sell the story. John Lewis campaigns sneak up on you playing with your senses and memories to manipulate you until even a toaster can seem emotional.

We saw this for ourselves recently when a client rejected a route for being too disturbing even though it actually contained the least explicit material of the three presented, instead it was the strength of the metaphor it used which the client found so moving.

2. Is it the content or the emotion that’s offensive?

For me the key word in the report’s findings is guilty. Playing on someone’s innate guilt for having a good life or not doing more for others and so on, can be a very quick and easy way to motivate people to act. But it isn’t a firm basis to build a lasting relationship on. By making people feel bad, they will feel bad about you and while they may take an instant short term action with you they will be less likely to do so in the future.

In short I think the report reminds us that it isn’t our job to offend people, it is to move them. Move them to emotion, move them to act and move them to encourage others to act. We need to remember that there are more ways to achieve this than simple shock tactics.