Earlier this year, we were lucky enough to work with the Motor Neurone Disease Association on their 2015 awareness campaign. We could see a great opportunity – the ice bucket challenge had had it’s day, and we knew there was a disconnect between the social media phenomenon and the charity. Our task, as a creative agency, was to connect the two.
Our idea, the #LastSummer campaign, was designed to do just that as well as highlight the fact that half of people with motor neurone disease (MND) die within two years of diagnosis. Since the ice bucket challenge went viral many mothers, brothers and wives are sadly no longer here.
We spent two months working around the idea of an empty chair and bucket. The lead campaign poster was accompanied by two others with stories from Ailsa Malcolm-Hutton and Michael Smith, who both have MND and, a short film that was going to be shown online and in cinemas.
But, when it came to the day of the campaign launch, by 11am we were deflated. The public reaction was not what we had wanted nor expected.
A campaign poster, which featured Michael and the quote: “Last summer I was the only person I knew who didn’t do the ice bucket challenge. Five months later I was diagnosed with motor neurone disease”, was understood by some to say that if you did not do challenge, then you would develop the disease. The sentiment that the charity was guilt-tripping the public was shared on Twitter and the backlash quickly escalated.
The comments were scathing, and it went straight to heart of the our work: “unbelievably stupid premise for a campaign” and “couldn’t have got this campaign more wrong if they tried”. It was a bitter pill for us to swallow. What made it even more difficult was knowing that so much of the criticism came in the form of retweets, with many people not having read Michael’s full story, or seen the poster for themselves.
Looking back there is no doubt that the wording on Michael’s story could have been better and once you realise that, the misinterpretation is obvious. But, prior to launch my team and I, along with the 100 people who looked at the advert, failed to noticed it.
Since then we’ve thought a lot about our approach to charity campaigns and what we will do differently. It is easy to look at a campaign as a whole and see it in terms of a “lead creative” and “supporting materials” – but that’s not always how the public see it. Every element of a campaign must be able to stand alone and tell the right story.
Also, for agencies, the difference between a fundraising and an awareness building campaign often seems fundamental. It is one of the first questions we ask our clients and we take a different approach depending on the answer. Many charities even appoint different agencies to work on each type of activity.
The #LastSummer campaign was accused of guilt-tripping the public into donating despite being aimed at raising awareness rather than money. In fact, it contained no fundraising ask at all.
For me, the “bad karma” and guilt-tripping argument that surrounded Michael’s story reflected the well-documented feeling of public fatigue when it comes to charity asks. I’m keen to understand this further and whether the fundraising/awareness distinction between campaigns is relevant to a broad public audience – after all, isn’t it all about improving the lives of those the charity serves.
Despite the backlash, we are proud of the campaign and will continue to do our very best for our charity clients. We all wish we had seen how Michael’s story could be misinterpreted and made the experience of sharing his story more positive.
Blogged by Carol Ann Whitehead