The Childhood Eye Cancer Trust: eschewed shock tactics
The Childhood Eye Cancer Trust: eschewed shock tactics
A view from Annie Gass

The alternative to shock tactics in charity marketing

It was a terrible consequence of world events that the ever-present background buzz from charity advertisers was turned into a din last year.

Conflict in Syria and Gaza combined with the outbreak of Ebola, the aftermath of the tsunami in the Philippines and, at home, the solemn remembrance of the centenary of the start of the First World War, to ensure that charity appeals were never far from the news.

With these loud voices joining the always-on tin rattling from domestic specialist charities, the competition for the public’s finite spare change was perhaps greater than for a long time.

Many charities resort to shock tactics when they encounter funding pressure or struggle to make themselves heard. Cast your mind back to the award-winning Harrison's Fund campaign and last year's Pancreatic Cancer Action. Both campaigns provocatively used similar headlines – "I wish my son had cancer" and "I wish I had breast cancer" – to attract attention (as well as reveal how poorly funded they were compared to other causes).

Shock tactics have a long track record of achieving cut-through, not least through the press coverage that they also generate, though critics argue that the more shocking they become the less effective they are.

There is an alternative way for less well-resourced and less famous charities – one that doesn’t involve shocking potential donors into submission but rather unites them in a positive manner around a particular cause, and crucially doing so in a way that doesn’t rely on a big media budget.

Charities are increasingly becoming savvy about cyberculture and have in some cases been the creators, instigators, and perpetuators of new memes.

Witness #nomakeupselfie (which was started spontaneously by Twitter users before being co-opted by Cancer Research UK) and the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge.

This trend was front of mind when Wunderman developed our most recent campaign for the Childhood Eye Cancer Trust (CHECT), a little known charity that supports children with Retinoblastoma – an aggressive and deadly eye cancer that affects children.

Because, fortunately, the condition is quite rare the charity's reach in soliciting donations from those who have a personal connection to the charity is consequently (and unfortunately) limited. In order to continue to attract funds we had to develop a more creative ways to cut through and compete for their share of the donor wallet.

Our challenge was to not only raise awareness of this little-known disease, but actually create it (including among healthcare professionals). And we were starting from a basis of zero, with no budget.

While we had a shocking story to tell – imagine if your child never saw your face – and one that would have no doubt pulled on the heartstring of many a mother, father, grandmother, grandfather, aunty and uncle, we decided to take a different tack.

We discovered that many of the children who have been diagnosed with the disease had first had it detected because of a photograph. A tumour in the eye can reflect back a white pupil in a flash photograph. As such, we created a series of four posters, made using an innovative reflective ink, showing a close-up shot of the eye of a real retinoblastoma survivor aged between two and five years old.

We then encouraged parents and carers to take a picture of the poster on their smartphones – and check the contrast between the resulting photograph and a seemingly healthy-looking eye in the poster.  This accompanying video was also produced and distributed via social media using the hashtag #haveyouCHECT?  

Our aim was to demonstrate to parents that they have the tool they need to see the warning signs, encourage early detection and possibly prevent removal of their child's eye, is in their hand, all day, every day.

There were various ways to come at this but we wanted to use technology and social media to empower parents rather than take the obvious route of shocking them (which can turn off as many potential supporters as it turns on). We wanted to leverage an insight that only we could own – and create something so differentiating and beautiful in its execution, that people would be both intrigued and empowered.

The result has been more than 70,000 views of the video, four million impressions, coverage in national newspapers such as the Daily Mail, and a personal note of commendation from the Director of Oncology at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles (the largest centre for retinoblastoma in the US) asking if we can send samples of the posters so that they can use them themselves.

Not bad for a campaign created purely from goodwill against a backdrop of so many other worthy causes vying for people's attention.

Annie Gass, strategy director, Wunderman