Paul Domenet: why charity ads need to clean up their act

“Oh, I can’t take another heartache” singer Nick Lowe lamented in Cruel To Be Kind back in 1979.

Well me neither, Nick. Enough heartache, I’ve about had it with shock tactics in advertising. So has the ASA who recently felt the need to blog a reminder that charity ads should relate to what a charity actually does.

To my mind, the industry in 2020 needs to dial down the cruelty and ramp up the kindness. Controversial advertising has had its day. Let’s call out the nauseating philosophy of doing work for charities to fill the trophy cabinet.

ASA’s shout out shows how far removed pro bono ads are getting from effective strategy. Much has been written about agencies taking charity advertising because they’re after gold at Cannes. Forget answering a brief and delivering objectives. The sinister implication is that charities don’t have a choice in what runs, as they are getting the work for free. This is plainly immoral, unethical and undermines any good intentions. Pro Bono work, like any work we do for our clients, has to be effective otherwise it is pointless.

Let’s not forget that pro bono comes from the Latin pro bono public. “For the public good”. It doesn’t mean “pro Black Pencil”.

We all know the reason for doing pro bono work is not as altruistic as some claim. Undeniably, pro bono campaigns fulfil CSR activity requirements and advertising agencies use them to attract new business.

But less cynically, pro bono work is not only good for the charity but good for the people who work on the project. At Free The Birds, we call them “libero projects”. They are not only ‘free’ in terms of costs, but they are liberating for all those involved.

A case in point is our partnership with Compassion in World Farming on thoughtful food consumption, a pro-plant based food campaign featuring a series of videos encouraging viewers to give farm animals ‘the day off’. Created in 2018 and considered ahead of the veganism curve in its bid to change consumer mentality and combat animal exploitation, it was a series of animated videos of animals taking part in relaxing activities.

It wasn’t about winning awards but effecting change at grassroots level. The same concept runs through our CIWF “Eat Plants. For A Change” campaign too. The team was totally galvanised by this and in the case of the “give farm animals a day off” campaign, it was the catalyst for the team to develop in-house animation capabilities. Win-win.

Nearly 170,000 charities are registered in England and Wales. Over the last ten years, about 5,000 new charities have been registered every year. And as David Ainsworth pointed out recently in Civil Society, ”it’s probably more than 400,000” as some charities are too small, have income under £5,000, some are exempt from registering and figures don’t include Scotland. Suffice it to say, there are lots of pro bono possibilities out there.

So this decade where mindfulness is so vital, let us as an industry focus on pro bono work for local charities. Help them drive projects from the community. Enough shock. Enough cruelty. Kindness is just as powerful.

As Mark Twain wrote: “Kindness is the language which the deaf can hear and the blind can see.”

Paul Domenet is Free The Birds’ communications creative director & partner.

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