Staying alive. Is the British Heart Foundation campaign the best charity ad ever?


by Magnus Shaw.

Earlier this year I wrote a piece for Creativepool, arguing the Red Cross had undermined their advertising by using a woman and her dog to represent the concept of 'crisis'. I agreed the ad was attractively directed, but was ultimately too notional and obscure to connect with the audience and make its point powerfully and memorably.

So today, it's hats off the British Heart Foundation for producing one of the most accomplished and effective charity campaigns in recent memory.

On the off-chance you haven't seen it, here it is.

Brilliant, yes?

I think BHF and its agency have succeeded by defying our expectations. Think of charity advertising, and we have a good idea what's involved. Often a campaign deploys testimonials, either detailing the ways in which a person has been helped by the organisation or indicating the need the charity is addressing. Dramatisations aren't uncommon either. We're shown a reconstruction of an alarming situation to spark anxiety or concern, then a sombre voice-over explains how a modest amount of money will alleviate the danger or suffering we have witnessed.

Then there's the metaphor. Indeed, the Red Cross work is the perfect example of this technique. Rather than a literal demonstration, we are introduced to icebergs representing the spread of AIDS, celebrities clicking their fingers to show us the rapidity of death in the developing world , or a hammer ploughing into a peach to symbolise a violent road accident.

All these routes are perfectly acceptable and can be very effective. Unfortunately, they also risk a certain sameness and therefore a lack of impact - a hazard obviously appreciated and smartly avoided by the British Heart Foundation.

Admittedly, the campaign does use a celebrity. But where there would usually be a Bono or a Brad, here we have the roguish Vinnie Jones; a man known for his somewhat physical approach to football and generally lacklustre Hollywood movies. Famous for his turn as Big Chris in Guy Ritchie's 'Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels', Jones is hardly the obvious choice for a charity's health campaign. Which is, of course, the beauty of the casting. The fact that he pretty much reprises the head-case, gangster role, makes the clip all the more compelling.

There's no golden rule preventing the use of humour in charity campaigns but, for obvious reasons, good judgement is essential. Wonderfully, this ad is not only funny, but sufficiently witty to be thoroughly entertaining. Nevertheless, all this fun would be fruitless if there was no meaningful message in the work - fortunately, the message couldn't be more apparent.

Clearly, in this instance, the BHF isn't seeking funds, it is giving us instructions - and following these instructions could save a life. Making the lesson clear, concise and easily retained couldn't be more important. What's more, the received wisdom has changed and mouth-to-mouth resuscitation is no longer recommended for victims of cardiac arrest. Or, in Vinnie's inimitable words 'You only kiss your missus on the lips'. Spot on. We'll remember that, because we'll remember the joke. Next the appropriate speed for chest compressions is seared into our minds. We simply do it to the backbeat of the Bee Gees' 'Staying Alive'. How fantastically simple, appropriate and retainable. Mission accomplished.

I love this ad and I don't exaggerate when I say there's a seam of genius running through it. A huge slab of credit must go to Grey London, the creative agency involved, because this is stunning work. Not simply because it is highly original, genuinely amusing and the best charity campaign for years (although it is all these things), but because the 'hands-only CPR' method the ad teaches has already saved over fifty lives. Those souls will be around this Christmas, thanks to the content of this commercial.

Now, that really is powerful advertising.

Magnus Shaw is a copywriter, blogger and consultant


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