There’s such a thing as too hard-hitting

When it comes to my personal charitable donations, there's really no rhyme or reason. While mainly I'm motivated by my own experiences - Alzheimer's for my grandmother, Parkinson's for my grandfather, etc. - other times it's just a matter of getting hit at the right time, when I feel my budget can spare it. At that point, I could easily be persuaded by a direct mail piece, a pal in need of sponsors for a 5km charity run, a kid peddling chocolate bars on the street, or an e-mail.
But rarely does a TV commercial motivate me to give or change my behaviour.

When it comes to my personal charitable donations, there’s really no rhyme or reason. While mainly I’m motivated by my own experiences – Alzheimer’s for my grandmother, Parkinson’s for my grandfather, etc. – other times it’s just a matter of getting hit at the right time, when I feel my budget can spare it. At that point, I could easily be persuaded by a direct mail piece, a pal in need of sponsors for a 5km charity run, a kid peddling chocolate bars on the street, or an e-mail.

But rarely does a TV commercial motivate me to give or change my behaviour. In fact, for the most part, the reverse is true; when a disturbing spot illuminates my tube – particularly the starving-children-in-Africa, ‘guilt TV’ variety – I hit that remote control button faster than you can say ‘feed the world.’

Ditto for the anti-smoking commercials – don’t want to see women smoking out of their tracheae, or wives affected with emphysema thanks to their loving husbands’ chain-smoking habits, nor do I want to hear kids talk about missing their daddies. While I don’t smoke, and in that case it probably doesn’t matter what I think, it still begs the question: how effective is such a strategy if the knee-jerk response is to zap them? That is, of course, assuming that it isn’t just me.

And therein lies the rub. As Robert Coambs, associate at the Centre for Health Promotion at the University of Toronto and president and CEO of Health Promotion Research, suggests, the first task for a not-for-profit is to clearly establish a target, and then shape its communications accordingly. (See ‘Charity Wars,’ p. 2.)

With younger folk, in particular teens, a solemn or preachy approach likely won’t cut it, simply because a sense of health risk is derived from personal observations. In other words, the-woman-who-suffers-from-emphysema ad may hit a nerve with 70-year-old smokers, who are more inclined to witness friends and family on their deathbeds, than a 13-year-old whose chief predicament is the zit she woke up with on her chin. ‘No matter how scary [the claims] are they have to be true because they lose their impact when the viewer can see through them,’ explains Coambs. ‘That’s probably what is happening with youth. They have a hard time perceiving the messages are true.’

The anti-drinking and driving messengers seem to have already stumbled across the notion that doom-and-gloom imagery won’t steer consumers to take more care with booze consumption. Gone are the body bags and distorted metal in favour of less graphic, yet equally pointed scenes. An example is Taxi Advertising and Design’s spot for Molson Breweries’ Drive Safe campaign, where an individual tests out a wheelchair before he goes out on the town; the idea is he may need it later.

Some have even done the unbelievable – mixed in a dose of humour. Take Toronto-based Labatt Breweries of Canada, which in research discovered that young people are more concerned about embarrassing themselves than dying; again, for the average 19-year-old, the former is more probable.

In spring, the beer giant ran a TV spot for responsible use, from Toronto agency Axmith McIntyre Wicht, starring a guy who gets caught cheating by his girlfriend; she’s watching Citytv’s Speaker’s Corner as he dozes on the couch and is deservedly dismayed when she sees her man frolicking with two babes on the program. Needless to say, he downed a few too many cold ones and paid the price, a result most partiers can identify with. A follow-up transit campaign depicted the same loser passed out in a shopping cart.

Toronto-based Rethink Breast Cancer also uses humour to effectively resonate with young-minded women – at least this one. Its agency, Zig, recently debuted an ad (you can check it out at Strategy’s Screening Room at www.strategymag.com) that I can watch over and over again and trust me, that doesn’t happen often.

‘Man Breasts’ portrays exactly what its moniker implies – men with big ones. Aside from the fact that there’s more jiggle in this commercial than at your local Hooters restaurant due to its gleefully bouncing male subjects, the message is simple and clear: if they had breasts, they’d appreciate them. We as women should look after ours and know the facts about breast cancer. There’s no hit-me-over-the-head tragic tales about little Johnny losing his mom to a devastating disease. Its laugh-out-loud ludicrous, yet I still get the point.

But some not-for-profits believe a hard-hitting strategy is most efficacious. (Perhaps that’s what focus groups relay, but take note – I would likely describe a heartwrenching ad as impactful too, if I was without my trusty zapper.)

Canadian Blood Services in Ottawa is one of those organizations and director of marketing Carey Boyarski explains that the previous ‘If you knew’ campaign – as in, if you knew somebody needed blood, would you give? – had probably reached those consumers who would respond to that kind of ‘guilt messaging;’ hence it was time to move on.

‘We needed to come up with a harder-edged campaign [also viewable on Strategy's screening room] that would reach that next layer of donors,’ she says. ‘Focus groups responded much more favourably when the message became very personal, as opposed to going back to our old campaign and the guilt approach.’

Unfortunately, the new ads still don’t inspire me to visit a blood donor clinic. But then, maybe I’m not the target.

Lisa D’Innocenzo

News Editor