Are Charity Advertisers Tilting at Windmills?

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General consensus is that Goliath stood at around six feet nine inches tall, a fair way off the colossal image frequently portrayed, which makes the fact he was killed by a teenager throwing a brick at him somewhat less fantastic (and a tad more sinister). Irrespective of the actual measurements, for better or worse, the encounter has become shorthand for a heroic struggle against seemingly uneven and insurmountable odds. This is not an inaccurate description of the battle for cut-through charity advertisers are faced with in today’s media landscape. There are 165,277 registered charities in the UK ( vying for the attention of, and donations from, the general public. According to Nielsen data, the ten largest of these account for over 89 percent of the total sector spend, which in turn, represents around two percent of UK ad spend as a whole.

Despite this disparity, the charity sector receives £15-£20 billion in funds from individuals across the UK annually. Whatever their motivation, be it true altruism or a cynical acquisition of fodder for virtue signalling, the act of charitable giving is a deeply personal decision and requires a complex consideration and rationalisation process.

There are indications that more rigorous direct marketing restrictions and negative public opinion are encouraging charity advertisers to move money away from previously profitable, but increasingly regulated, direct fundraising channels and into TV as a medium (20 percent year-on-year – The Times, May 2016). At the same time, numerous sources claim charities are under-investing in digital across the board, suggesting that the numbers of personally targeted requests to the public are likely to have reduced.

As very few charities have the privilege of the sophisticated attribution systems and econometric models of some private sector behemoths, the platform selection and phasing of media tends to be dictated by received wisdom on the historical effectiveness of driving short term response. This in turn results in  largely predictable periodic bursts of (proportionally) intense activity on a bedrock of fundraising messages.

But not all charities are the same, and tactics need to be tailored to reflect that. Those that deal with issues that are ubiquitously understood and enjoy a degree of high esteem from the public (e.g. cancer and  animal welfare) can behave differently and more akin to traditional brands than those in the long tail that aim to raise awareness of more niche issues or challenge societal attitudes for minority groups.

Traditional advertising formats are great at reinforcing memory structures through frequency – small snippets of information, logos, call to actions – but these all need to be rooted in an understanding and recognition of ‘need’ from the consumer’s point of view.  This is because we know that the acceptance of challenges and struggles, which are outside of one’s firsthand experience, are not efficiently triggered by the presentation of statistics and are less effective at driving support (Small, Lowenstein & Slavic, 2010).

In this day and age it would seem abhorrent for an individual suffering from an illness to be blamed for their plight or ostracised from a community – science having provided us with clear methods of classification and treatment. Yet stigma surrounding mental health and developmental disorders still persists; difficulty in establishing causality, a perceived lack of treatment options, ill-informed superstitions – amongst other factors – which results in anachronistic attitudes. Perhaps it’s the amorphous nature of ‘symptoms’ presented – in a way comparable to the intangibility of ‘product’ delivered by charities, as they are dealing mainly in pledges, promises or long term results (curing the presently incurable, etc.) and deployment of funds in far off lands. These factors mean there is a greater need for charities to communicate clear positioning and engender trust, than a soft drink or pair of trainers whose deliverable benefit is concrete and immediately realised upon purchase.

The current National Autistic Society campaign ’Too Much Information’, developed in collaboration with Zenith and The Guardian, looks to promote reappraisal of autism in society, which has a high degree of recognition, but very superficial levels of comprehension. The campaign demonstrates that working with media owners to provide informed viewpoints on the real stories behind the issues (the people not just the facts) in a way that resonates with their audience, can make media investment go further than simple display advertising. Charities need to be prepared to relinquish some control of the executional style, but by leveraging their knowledge and expertise, can opt for a higher quality of attention rather than pure volume, which is integral to deepening understanding.

Drawing attention is only half the battle in a world where people care (or claim to), are genuinely interested in expanding their worldview (or don’t want to be perceived as ignorant), and will actively support causes that they can believe in (or help to reinforce their curated personal brand). Directly competing with advertising giants for fleeting recognition needn’t be the accepted approach. David didn’t challenge Goliath to an arm wrestle.

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