Do charity ads overuse shock tactics?

It’s hard to escape a feeling of déjà vu about the provocative new campaign promoting awareness of pancreatic cancer – or concern that shock tactics used by charities are growing counterproductive. The similarities between the ad for Pancreatic Cancer Action and the award-winning work for Harrison’s Fund, by AIS London, go beyond their headlines – "I wish I had breast cancer" in the former and "I wish my son had cancer" in the latter. Both are manifestations of how loud charities have to shout to make themselves heard above the din. But do shock tactics work?

Given the amount of media coverage generated by Pancreatic Cancer Action’s ad, it’s clear they do – but probably for a limited time. Barnardo’s, infamous for using shock tactics, now focuses on how donations can help "turn around" the lives of exploited children.

Last year, the NSPCC shifted away from shock tactics to emphasise how child abuse can be prevented. And Pancreatic Cancer Action, having made its point, insists it too will be moving on. The second phase of its campaign will be to educate people about recognising the symptoms of the disease.

Trade body

Hugh Burkitt, chief executive, Marketing Society; trustee, Barnardo’s

"The most important requirement of charity advertising is that it should tell the truth. If it does, then shock tactics are perfectly legitimate and charities such as Pancreatic Cancer Action are entitled to say what they like. I know from personal experience what a terrible disease pancreatic cancer is and how so many more people survive breast cancer. The worry about advertising of this kind is its possible effect on sufferers who see it and that shock tactics will prove counterproductive because people will just avoid the ads. In the end, you have to move on to a more positive message."


Mark Roalfe, chairman and creative director, Rainey Kelly Campbell Roalfe/Y&R

"Charities use shock tactics because they work. If they didn’t, why would so many people be talking about the Pancreatic Cancer Action ad? By doing what it did, the charity has moved the issue up the agenda. However, shock tactics don’t work all the time. You lose sympathy if you cry wolf too often. With our work for Oxfam, we always take care not to shock. Research has shown that, if you portray the third world as a hopeless case, people will think it beyond help. It’s important that you give people a feeling of empowerment."


Geoff Gower, creative partner, AIS London

"Charities have a long history of using shock tactics in their advertising and they will continue doing so. The fact is that there’s a lot of competition in the sector and it’s difficult getting people to donate to one charity rather than another. Also, while major charities have budgets to run sustained campaigns, small ones such as Harrison’s Fund and Pancreatic Cancer Action have little money. But you can’t rely on shock tactics forever. In the case of Harrison’s Fund, we’re promoting an app that makes a mini-payment every time you use the snooze button on your mobile."


Ali Stunt, founder, Pancreatic Cancer Action

"We’re a small organisation that doesn’t have a lot of funds, so we used shock tactics to spread our message as widely as possible and to make people understand that not all cancers are the same. If we had simply gone ahead with a campaign giving people advice about the symptoms of the disease, we would never have got the message across as effectively as we did, given the headlines the campaign generated in the UK and internationally. I’m not saying we would never use shock tactics again, but you have to be aware of the danger of producing shocking ads that no longer shock."