Revealing the kid in street kids

Almost every street in a big city's downtown core has one, sometimes a group of them. They huddle in bus shelters, on storefront stoops and in the parks. Street kids, young people without homes, often runaways from abusive families, sometimes need a little charity.
But to many city dwellers they're no more than a nuisance, and the words 'spare any change' are often met with 'get a job.'

Almost every street in a big city’s downtown core has one, sometimes a group of them. They huddle in bus shelters, on storefront stoops and in the parks. Street kids, young people without homes, often runaways from abusive families, sometimes need a little charity.

But to many city dwellers they’re no more than a nuisance, and the words ‘spare any change’ are often met with ‘get a job.’

Covenant House, one of Toronto’s and Vancouver’s best-known non-profit shelters, has taken on the task of changing the public’s attitude towards these kids with a gutsy national campaign. But instead of using statistics or sad faces in the ads, they simply wanted to show that these people were children – not adults capable of taking care of themselves, but children who needed empathy and compassion. And it worked.

‘Toronto urbanites are a real cynical bunch – when we see the street kids begging for change we think it’s for a case of beer or recreational drugs,’ says Judy John, executive creative director at Toronto’s Leo Burnett. ‘But Covenant House put out some incredibly insightful ads that made you ask yourself ‘Would I want to sleep on those streets?’ Whenever creative changes perception, it’s a very powerful tool.’

Produced by Taxi in Toronto, the ads were designed to do just that, to change people’s perception of street kids. For instance, during the Christmas season last year, a series of print ads ran that depicted kids sleeping inside empty toy boxes thrown away by more fortunate kids. Each ad featured the powerful tagline: ‘Not all kids want the same thing for Christmas.’

The campaign was so powerful that three of the ads, ‘Lever Hockey,’ ‘Computer’ and ‘Net,’ won Silver Lions in the Fundraising and Appeals category and Bronze Lions in the Public Awareness Messages/Fundraising and Charities category at Cannes. For Carolyn Millman, director of development, communications and fundraising for Covenant House, the prestigious awards were a wonderful surprise, but she’s even more excited about the fact that the ads seem to be working.

‘Our ultimate goal, obviously, is to increase donations but that’s not all we wanted to do,’ she explains. ‘We also wanted to break down the misconceptions about street kids – they’re not lazy. A lot of people don’t realize that they’re running from sexual abuse and are kicked out of their homes – they don’t choose to live on the streets. They may look tough but they all just want to be loved.’

Millman says that while it is difficult to gauge the effectiveness of any non-profit campaign, there are more people contacting Covenant House and mentioning that they saw the ads, and donations have increased as well.

All the ads were executed pro bono, and Covenant House pegs the value of donated media space (in print, radio and television) at over $2 million.

When the time came to develop the creative, Millman took Taxi’s staff for a tour of Covenant House to put a face to the kids the organization was helping. She showed them going through job training and educational classes, trying to gain the skills to get off the streets.

‘I can’t ever explain what’s it’s like, but the kids can. It’s really amazing to see their faces and hear their stories,’ she adds. ‘Telling is one thing, but seeing the school, the job training in real life, that’s something completely different. I think it really inspired them.’

Paul Lavoie, Taxi’s president, was certainly inspired. He joined Covenant House’s board of directors four years ago, and believes the reason the campaign’s creative rings so true is because it doesn’t let people ignore the kid in street kids.

‘A couple of years ago, there was a time when kids were cleaning windshields for spare change. It bothered motorists so there was a lot of prejudice against them,’ he says. ‘People failed to see that they were still children. That’s why we chose to use the technique we are using now, we want to illustrate that they are indeed still children.’

Similarly, the most recent television ad, which ran nationally on about 50 stations earlier this year, featured a little baby alone, screaming in a bus shelter. The idea was to juxtapose the street kid image with that of a helpless child.

Lavoie recalls that the spot was shot on a shaky handheld camera for $4,000 on the streets of Toronto. ‘We were almost spying,’ he says, adding that the result was very powerful. ‘Would you pass by a baby crying alone in a bus shelter? Well really, what’s the difference?’ he asks.

This year marks Covenant House’s 20th anniversary. During a brainstorming session with Taxi’s team, Lavoie says the group realized that it wouldn’t make sense to ‘celebrate’ the anniversary in the creative. Instead Taxi produced a poignant print ad that pictured a child warming his hands above a birthday cake’s candles, with the tagline: ‘Sadly, it’s our 20th anniversary.’

It ran across the country in malls and on transit routes and was accompanied by a radio PSA. Hosts at stations such as Toronto’s CHUM and Flow praised the organization’s hard work, but like the print ad, lamented the fact that Covenant House needed to be around for so long.

Lavoie says that working for non-profits is almost an agency’s duty because there are over 76,000 charities in Canada battling for the public’s money and compassion – but he adds that the payoff is that it’s easier and more rewarding to produce creative for that sector than for consumer products.

‘We’re advertisers, and holding that role makes us very powerful messengers,’ he says. ‘The subject matter is much more emotional than a piece of cheese, and it’s an easier job to remind people of a problem than sell them that cheese through the creative we produce.’

By the end of the year, Covenant House hopes to roll out a new program in which participating hotels will replace the ubiquitous mint on the pillow with notes that read something to the effect of ‘No mint tonight, the money it would have cost has instead been given to Covenant House – sleep well.’ While details such as which hotels will participate still have to be ironed out, Millman remains positive about the future.

‘The campaigns are all about the kids. It’s hard to capture their world in just a few seconds to make people understand, but Taxi did – they’re geniuses,’ she says. ‘I think it’s working too, people’s mindsets are changing. But the problems won’t go away overnight so we just have to keep going and hope that people will see what we see every day.’