by Magnus Shaw
There is much to like about charity advertising. Freed from the constraints of pack-shots and multi-buys, agencies have the chance to show off their creative chops and tell real human stories - often quite brilliantly. One only has to think of recent work for Barnardos, The RSPCA and The NSPCC to understand why so many firms are keen to have not-for-profit clients on their books.
Another striking charity campaign broke on telly about a week ago, this time for the British Red Cross.
For the record I should say I admire the Red Cross enormously. Its teams often place themselves in dreadful danger to aid those stricken by war, disaster and appalling misfortune. However, this new advertisement is designed to raise the profile of the organisation's work closer to home. Launching the campaign, Sir Nick Young, the charity's Chief Executive said:
"There are a growing number of people in crisis in this country - more than we have seen in decades. People often associate us with providing aid in disaster-struck countries. But it is not only communities overseas that need Red Cross support. Last year we helped more than a million people in crisis in the UK."
So clearly the ad's aims are beyond reproach. But no matter how laudable the proposition, I can't help feeling the piece under-performs. Having worked on a fair few charity projects over the last two decades, I've always found the most successful campaigns are those which take an abstract issue - child abuse, poverty, disease - and populate it with recognisable characters. When real people appear in the audience's field of vision, the issues come alive, compassion is sparked and concern ignited. Suddenly, people aren't being asked to alleviate a situation, but to support fellow human beings (although in the case of the heart-breaking RSPCA clip, the milk of human kindness flows towards not a person but a wonderful old dog, stranded in the rain). If desire is the overriding motivation generated by a successful consumer ad, then empathy takes its place in the effective charity spot.
Quite bravely, the new film for the Red Cross, doesn't take this approach. Relying heavily on metaphor and allegory, it literally personifies "crisis". The notion is embodied in a hooded a girl and her large, black dog. Roaming identifiably British streets at night, they stalk the houses and pavements looking for a random victim on which to shower disaster. This angle can and does work. Anyone from my generation will recall the terrifying "Spirit Of Dark and Lonely Water" public information film, where ponds and canals were haunted by a cloaked spectre, all the better to deter hapless children from visiting. But in the Red Cross piece, the 'spirit' of crisis is a rather pretty, if dour, young woman. And while her dog is large and lupine, he still looks like he'd be fun in the park.
And here lies the problem. The awful inflictions described by the voiceover - house burning down, sudden illness, isolation - are not seen to be sufficiently threatening to convince the viewer the Red Cross is essential. Nor do we see any of these catastrophes actually taking place, only hearing of their possibility. I have no craving to watch people's houses ablaze, or ordinary folk struck down with severe maladies - but in this setting, impact is everything. All marketing messages now struggle to be heard above the noise of an ever-expanding media, and money is in short supply. It is therefore vital that charity campaigns cut to the chase and leave us slightly shocked. I'm concerned this ad falls short of accomplishing that mission.
I completely understand the organisation's wish to shine a light on the work they do in the UK - and I like the idea of creating unease in the audience, by suggesting that crisis doesn't discriminate, and we're all a little more vulnerable than we think. These are powerful sentiments to sell a charity and its goals, thereby increasing the public's respect for their activities. But I think the execution is too nuanced, too subtle and even miscast. True, it's wonderfully shot and its mood is suitably bleak, but the screenplay is too kind to us. After our intrigue in the pale woman and her padding hound is aroused, we're let off the hook, because we're not shown the consequences of the disasters described. In fact, we're completely spared the human stories and, if the female and canine stars are merely avatars for life's harsh realities, there are no "real" people in the ad at all.
Nevertheless, for once, I hope I'm absolutely mistaken. I'd be genuinely delighted if this work is supremely effective - not only raising the profile of the Red Cross and its incredible dedication, but inspiring a significant upturn in donations. Tragedy, loneliness, anxiety and pain have rarely been so prevalent - and if there are enterprises striving to ameliorate the suffering they cause, we should give them our undivided support.
After all, advertising doesn't really matter. People do.