No more Mr. Nice Guy: charities get aggressive

There are roughly 80,000 registered charities in Canada (compared to 22,500 in 1967), and as we get closer to the holiday season, appeals from these good causes are multiplying. The Canadian Cancer Society, Canadian Blood Services, Rethink Breast Cancer, the Canadian Landmine Foundation, hospitals and food banks are just some of the non-profits that have already launched or are coming out with new campaigns.
Some charities, such as Canadian Blood Services, pay for some of their media but most rely only on donated time and space. To have their PSAs picked up by media outlets, creative has to match the media vehicle's programming, editorial approach or audience.
As for creative tactics, subtly alluding to a problem or tiptoeing around it won't get a response in today's marketplace.

There are roughly 80,000 registered charities in Canada (compared to 22,500 in 1967), and as we get closer to the holiday season, appeals from these good causes are multiplying. The Canadian Cancer Society, Canadian Blood Services, Rethink Breast Cancer, the Canadian Landmine Foundation, hospitals and food banks are just some of the non-profits that have already launched or are coming out with new campaigns.

Some charities, such as Canadian Blood Services, pay for some of their media but most rely only on donated time and space. To have their PSAs picked up by media outlets, creative has to match the media vehicle’s programming, editorial approach or audience.

As for creative tactics, subtly alluding to a problem or tiptoeing around it won’t get a response in today’s marketplace.

Robert Coambs, associate at the Centre for Health Promotion at the University of Toronto and president and CEO of Health Promotion Research, is a behavioural epidemiologist. His work involves trying to modify behaviour that can influence the spread of disease (with anti-smoking and addiction advertising, for example). He says that with cause-related marketing, the message has to explicitly ask for donations, or, in the case of health messages, for behaviour change.

‘The worst problem with health messages is that people are too nice. We tend to not want to be strong in our message delivery. But you have to craft a message around target behaviour and do what you can to create that change.

‘With teenagers,’ Coambs continues, ‘you sometimes have to think about consequences. We can’t do that through a TV commercial except through what I call clear and present danger, by making it explicitly clear to the target audience that there are consequences that will occur if they don’t change their behaviour.’

According to Coambs, one or more of the following four points must be addressed by non-profit advertising in order to encourage donations and attention to a cause: the severity of the condition; the audience’s personal susceptibility; the money donated is actually going to do something; and that it’s normal and natural to donate to this cause, and it’s accepted amongst peer groups.

‘When we talk of clear and present danger, that has a lot to do with severity and susceptibility. You could die – that’s a severity and susceptibility message,’ says Coambs.

Gloom and doom may work in some cases, but others believe humour can also be extremely successful for bringing attention to serious causes.

Here, four industry experts offer their suggestions on how non-profit organizations can get noticed, and on what works and what doesn’t.

Harvey Wolfe, social marketing consultant

Cause and Effect Communications, Toronto

Wolfe consults for such organizations as the Canadian Landmine Foundation, which will soon release a new TV campaign, and helped develop the ‘Night of a Thousand Dinners’ – one night each year where individuals host dinner parties to raise funds for the Adopt-a-Minefield program. There is now participation in this Canadian initiative in over 30 countries. Wolfe cautions that while advertising has to be more hard-hitting today, there is a line that can’t be crossed at the risk of turning off viewers as well as broadcasters:

‘In the cause-related market you can’t push too hard because then it will have the reverse effect and people will feel manipulated and hit the remote button.

‘Another consideration is broadcasters. Just like there are dozens of choices for consumers to choose from in the area of charities, broadcasters are also getting more and more PSAs and there are only so many they can show.

‘Realistically speaking, they also have to be sensitive to advertisers. They want something that is going to segue into the next commercial and not be offensive.

‘You build relationships [with broadcasters] and you have to build relationships on the consumer level also. Charities that have the financial resources to build those relationships have a better chance.

‘You can’t take a purely tactical approach. You have to have a very well thought out long-term strategy. You can’t do this one big push and hope it will make money and then move on to the next.

‘You have to build in mechanisms that allow you to build and nurture relationships, because it’s just too difficult to always expect to be the biggest and the flashiest.

‘Don’t try to shock. Don’t try to manipulate. Don’t underestimate the intelligence of your target group. Know who they are and appeal to them in a tone, voice and manner that they’ll respond to favourably.

‘People want to know more and more what it costs. So when they’re invited to dinners or they sense conspicuous consumption, the antenna goes up. It’s a double-edged sword. Any time you go with the big lavish approach you have to make sure it operates on a scale that people ultimately feel comfortable with. People want the sense that they’re doing good.

‘It’s a challenge but you have to look at it in a way similar to somebody trying to get listed on the shelf at Loblaws. It’s a tough world out there.’

Alison Gordon-Farber, director of communications

Rethink Breast Cancer, Toronto

Gordon-Farber is co-founder of Rethink Breast Cancer, which was formed last year to boost awareness about the disease as well as raise funds for research. The organization’s latest TV spot from Zig features men with breasts and the message, ‘If men had breasts, they’d really appreciate them. Take care of yours.’ She believes that breaking through the clutter is of paramount importance:

‘You have to break through to get your message across. Your PSA won’t run during the season premiere of Friends. You’re running in off times and even in high rotation, it’s not to the same extent as what it would be if you had bought that space.

‘You have to do something that’s also going to have a PR component to it. Whether that’s a radio show talking about your PSA or an article, it’s just going to take your message further if it’s innovative.

‘When it comes to breast cancer, most often the message is around fear, as a motivator. We don’t think fear really motivates – it’s something where people just flip the channel.

‘You have to be targeted as to the stations you’re working with as best you can.

‘We’re trying to be strategic about who we’re speaking to and what the message is, how it’s creatively portrayed. The return comes in terms of stations saying, ‘Yes, we’ll play this.’ If your target isn’t watching MuchMusic, then don’t do a PSA for MuchMusic. We’re trying to reach out to expand the cause by engaging younger women.

‘Another technique is to be relevant. Our demographic is younger. Humour makes sense for us as does being as creative as we possibly can. It’s relevant to them; ‘okay I’m watching Friends and I’ve seen this hilarious commercial for Nike and this other one and then this other strange thing has come on that’s really scary and sad.’ That becomes a disconnect.’

Carey Boyarski, director of marketing

Canadian Blood Services, Ottawa

Contrary to Rethink Breast Cancer, Ottawa-based Canadian Blood Services believes the harder-hitting its advertising, the better. Its new campaign was designed to bring new donors into the system. Boyarski says to accomplish that, the message had to be more aggressive:

‘Whereas 80% of Canadians are saying ‘if I can donate, I should be,’ right now only 3% of Canadians give blood and we need on average 5% to give regularly. Our research revealed that about eight out of 10 Canadians understand there is a blood shortage and believe it’s due to a lack of donors.

‘Our challenge with this advertising strategy was to respond to the complacency Canadians are now feeling – that somebody else is going to be taking care of the problem.

‘Research told us that most people feel nobody is actually going to die from a shortage of blood. We knew we needed to move people [from] their very-high awareness of the need, [through] to the intention of giving blood. Our strategy to do that is to show the consequences of not donating.

‘We had reached most of the people who are going to respond to that kind of [guilt messaging of the previous] ‘If You Knew’ campaign and we needed to come up with a harder-edged campaign that would reach that next layer of donors – those people who have those good intentions but are simply not acting.

‘We’re also getting very personal with the message. Focus groups responded much more favourably when the message became very personal – ‘What’s in it for me?’ – as opposed to the guilt approach.’

Mark Weisbarth, president

Due North Communications, Toronto

Weisbarth says there is a trend toward a more creative approach in non-profit advertising. He expects this to continue because of the large number of organizations competing for consumer attention:

‘An example of being more creative was the ‘Cam’ spot from Zig.’

['Cam's Breast Exam' for the Breast Cancer Society of Canada featured a teenage boy offering to do free breast exams for women.]

‘That was just brilliant. I think it broke through [in] getting people to be aware and take action.

‘You have to look at it as if you were a detergent, retailer or airline. You’ve got to be out there with the best possible creative you can get.

‘There are a lot of orgs attempting to get people to feel bad about the situation other people are in, but I wonder [if that is] motivating because consumers are so desensitized about everything. I wonder whether another hard story about a woman suffering from breast cancer is going to get people to pay attention the way the ‘Cam’ spot did. There wasn’t a horror story or a woman suffering, but it sure made the point. It was a single-minded strategy and I think a very sharp execution.

‘I also like (last year’s Molson ‘responsible use’ campaign from Taxi) where a guy goes in and tries out a wheelchair ahead of time – you’ll be drinking and driving tonight, well, you may want to look at this wheelchair. That’s a fresher way of going at that.

‘I think not-for-profits have got to stop doing [ads] that tug at heartstrings because there’s way too many tears, way too many causes, and way too many sad stories.

‘Not only are we more immune to advertising, anyway, but what’s more horrifying, a kid who’s left alone because his mother died in a drunk driving situation or a kid who’s mother died of breast cancer? They’re both horrible.

‘[Cash and car lotteries] are clearly more about raising money, which is very important for these foundations, rather than actually saying this is what [the hospital] does. I don’t think it does anything for the brand but I don’t think it’s intended to. As a consumer, I don’t think much of it. There are people who say that in the world of lotteries, I might as well help the hospital. That’s the flip side of it. I certainly don’t think it helps the imagery of the foundation or cause they’re raising money for. In fact, I think it runs a little counter to it.’