What’s wrong with charity advertising?

April 10 2012 - Mark Phillips

Howard Gossage is my favourite Mad Man. If I have an advertising hero, it's probably him.

Howard didn't particularly enjoy coming up with ways to sell more cars and airline tickets, he was just rather good at it. What interested him most was making the world a better place.

So when David Brower of the Sierra Club asked him to help prevent the Grand Canyon being flooded through the building of the Glen Canyon dam, you'd have thought Howard's response would be an automatic yes.

But it wasn't.

David asked Howard's agency, Wiener and Gossage, to lay out an open letter he had written to US Secretary of the Interior, Stewart Udall. It was his last ditch attempt to try to stop the construction going ahead.

Howard read the letter and concluded that it was over elaborate.

To use his own phrase, he thought David was "putting raisins in the matzos" by going into too much technical detail.

In his opinion, this was the same mistake that far too many charities and cause-related advertising made. The ad talked at its audience and in doing so alienated the people who were most likely to help.

As Gossage explained…

" When they [The Sierra Club] came to us for counsel I happened to mention this to them and said, 'What you've got to do is give people recourse. You've got to give them something they can do so they don't feel guilty and, therefore hate you for making them feel guilty'."

Brower wasn't persuaded, so a test was agreed. One million editions of the New York Times carried his open letter ad and one million carried Gossage's ad.

I haven't got the final results, but Gossage's ad (below) outperformed Bower's ad "enormously" (you can find a readable version of the ad here).

Screen shot 2012-04-02 at 16.09.08
As you'll see from the number of coupons, Gossage's aim was to drive response. Each carried a message that could be sent to the US President, the Secretary of the Interior, the Head of the Interior Committee of the House of Representatives, the reader's Congressman and the reader's two Senators.

As copywriter Jerry Mander admitted, it was the coupons that made the difference…

"Gossage did the important, brilliant thing with those multiple coupons. That had never been done before. They were very, very important because in those days people used coupons; they were their internet."

Brower's original target, Secretary Udall, sums up the impact of the campaign rather neatly…

"That was really a stroke of genius. Of course he knew how to put the heat on you. If you were in my position you had to react."

As a result, support for the Sierra Club doubled from 39,000 to 78,000 and the bill that would authorise the construction of the dam was defeated.

It was the interactive nature of Howard's approach that worked. Rather than lecture, he wanted readers to participate in the ad. This created a connection that meant the brand and message were much more likely to be remembered.

It was an approach that made him different.

He believed that too many agencies suffered from a lack of both creativity and information. Instead they relied on repetition of the same message in the hope that it would finally break through to consumers.

It sounds like much of the charity advertising that we see today – campaigns are praised because the ads look alike and say the same thing.

But when you think about it, this approach is akin to admitting defeat.

We've decided that the only way someone is going to take in our message is if it is constantly paraded in front of their eyes (or ears). That might be acceptable if we're selling something as ordinary as baked beans, but when we are fighting global poverty, tackling climate change or even searching for a cure for cancer is it the best that we can do?

Gossage summed up the problem quite neatly when he said….

"The real fact of the matter is that nobody reads ads. People read what interests them, and sometimes it's an ad."

And that's the point. We need to focus on what interests our donors – not on telling them what we want them to think.

That was exactly what Gossage did with his ad. He gave everyone the chance to protect something that they valued. As a result, the Grand Canyon is still an incredible place for us all to enjoy.

It's a rather amazing story, but it doesn't end there.

You might have thought that after this success, the trustees of the SIerra Club would have been incredibly happy.

You'd be wrong.

They weren't sure that they actually wanted all the publicity and controvercy stirred up by Gossage's campaign.

David Brower disagreed with them. The result was his resignation.

Brower's next job was based in Gossage's office where he set up a new environmental pressure group. After a little debate, a name was agreed – Friends of The Earth.

Hat tip to @HayesThompson for recommending Changing The World Is The Only Fit Work For A Grown Man