Advertising is evil. Unless it’s raising money for charities, in which case it’s A Very Good Thing. Isn’t it?
In Ruth Ruderham’s presentation ‘Creating a powerful proposition, whatever your cause’ at this year’s International Fundraising Congress, she alluded to the threat to the sector from within; posed by righteous big name charities like Oxfam and WWF, and expressed in various reports including ‘Think of Me as Evil? Opening the Ethical Debates in Advertising’. The thesis is that advertising can and does have a negative impact on culture by producing communications that normalise damaging attitudes, values and behaviours. The implication is that if we depict poor, starving Africans in our communications we risk stereotyping a whole continent.
There has long been a tension between the Campaigning, Comm’s and Fundraising arms of many charities. Charities want to have their cake and eat it, communicating both that <black, old, ill, poor INSERT / DELETE AS APPROPRIATE> people are <capable, active, inspiring, industrious etc. etc.> or <needy, deserving, disadvantaged, misunderstood etc.etc.> depending on whether they want to change attitudes and laws or raise funds to change lives.
The thing is, none of these things are mutually exclusive – people can be many different things at the same time. That’s what’s brilliant about human beings. And the same is true of people’s reasons for supporting a charity. It could be out of pure enlightened altruism or naked self interest. Or a combination of things – enlightened self interest. We, and even they themselves, won’t ever really know why. And it doesn’t really matter to the end game as long as people are making good things happen.With win-win propositions, surely everyone, well, wins. Except ‘winning’ is probably a ‘bad’ thing.
The report suggests that ‘extrinsic’ values (e.g. image or power) undermine ‘intrinsic’ values (e.g. self acceptance and universalism) and seems to place a negative value judgement on extrinsic values per se – but if giving to KIVA makes me feel powerful or I wear a Help the Heroes wristband because I think it’s cool, is that wrong?
As far as how we solicit people’s support, it’s beholden upon us to be able to substantiate any claims we make – it’s not just a legal responsibility but a moral one, and one that we should gladly embrace. If we believe we are effective at helping to meet a genuine need, we should be proud to shout about it. People want transparency and we should put a window on our work. People give to people and we need to connect our donors with our beneficiaries in as direct and unmediated a way as possible. The true voice of the beneficiary must be heard and we must avoid institutional ventriloquism. Technology can help us to do that – witness the live webcam and the blog that accompanied WaterAid’s Big Dig appeal. People’s expectations from charity brands today are influenced by their experience of brands in other sectors – if First Direct’s Customer Service is superlative, so should our feedback mechanisms be; if I can track my order with Amazon, why can’t I see the progress my plumpynut is making across the world?
It’s our job to create communications that are as compelling as possible. They should be able to withstand scrutiny and like all advertising, should be legal, decent, honest and truthful. But more than that, they must be engaging. People read (or watch) things that interest them. And sometimes that includes advertising. If our stories are strong enough, people will be moved to do something. We need to produce communications that make people feel something (outrage, sadness, reassurance or surprise..) in order to inspire them to act. Some advertising gets people to spend money they haven’t got on things they don’t need. But manipulation per se is not morally loaded. We are complicit and we knowingly deploy the tools of persuasion to get people to do good stuff. And we shouldn’t feel bad about it.
Read more of our Good Thinking from this year’s IFC here.
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