Stupid posters reveal the empty heart of abstract fundraising

Stupid ads

I wonder if they’re embarrassed? A recent post in Ads of the World shows dozens of Help Japan posters. Looking at these posters, you might think there’d been a design contest that had these rules:


  • Make a clever visual pun about the disaster, using the Japanese flag as the main visual reference.
  • Make the call to action incredibly tiny, or have none at all.

There was no such contest. This is what a bunch of designers came up with independently. And that says a lot.

Now it’s not quite fair to label all of these Stupid Nonprofit Ads, because most have no reference to any specific nonprofit organization. They are almost purely works of design, not marketing. I’m guessing a lot are the work of students.

But darn it, the abstraction, the emptiness, the lack of connection with the human world these ads display, along with their utter lack or originality masquerading as creativity really makes them all look like classic Stupid Nonprofit Ads!

Stupid Nonprofit Ads tend to be design driven, rather than strategy-, communication-, or knowledge-driven. And the flag of Japan is designer bait. Its bold, minimalistic design must be just irresistible. So much more exciting than actual humans or specific scenes that might communicate any emotional content.

Communicating human suffering by showing a flag is not only lazy, but it’s false. The Flag of Japan took no injury; individual people in Japan have suffered and died. That’s the whole point, the entire reason anyone is talking about the disaster. (There’s a similar popular genre of Stupid Ads that attempt depict suffering in Africa by showing punny maps of Africa. You can see a whole lot of these here.)

Here are just a few of the many, many, Help Japan posters you can see at Ads of the World:

Reddots

Even a properly designed poster is not very smart fundraising. Posters don’t reach the right people in the right ways. So designing a poster at all is an act of design self-indulgence. Which is pretty much what’s happening with most Stupid Nonprofit Ads.

If you want to get people to give, you have no choice but to enter the world of flesh and blood humans who are driven by their emotions, who want real connections with other real people. The real designers, the ones who truly get it, know this and excel at it.


Comments

12 responses to “Stupid posters reveal the empty heart of abstract fundraising”

  1. Hey Jeff,
    You guessed wrong, again. Turns out it’s not stupid agencies trying to win awards. Here’s the rest of the story from the NY Daily News regarding the poster of the red sun with egg shell cracks. Oops, looks like great design accidentally made a difference…
    “The rising sun has been fractured. A spare, faintly red-spattered poster of Japan’s national flag, the red circle cracked by the powerful undersea earthquake and ensuing tsunami, has made a deep impression on people around the world who are aghast at the growing nightmare in the Far East. At first, artist James White, a 34 year-old freelance graphic designer from Halifax, Nova Scotia, who designs under the name Signalnoise, created the digital image as a way to encourage people to give to the Red Cross and other charities. He said that designed the image in under an hour. “It was a simple way to illustrate the destruction from the earthquake using the rising sun,” White told the Daily News.”Something powerful to provoke help and aid from other people.”White was not prepared for the international interest in the image, which quickly went viral. He then decided to make turn the image into a poster — and the 18-inch-by-24-inch artwork quickly sold out. White, who works alone, is working quickly to put out a second run, which will be available on a first-come, first-serve basis. All profits will be donated to charities that are working to help the thousands of Japanese citizens who are in grave danger after the deadly 8.9-magnitude earthquake on March 11.” lgoldwert@nydailynews.com

  2. Hey Jeff,
    You guessed wrong, again. Turns out it’s not stupid agencies trying to win awards. Here’s the rest of the story from the NY Daily News regarding the poster of the red sun with egg shell cracks. Oops, looks like great design accidentally made a difference…
    “The rising sun has been fractured. A spare, faintly red-spattered poster of Japan’s national flag, the red circle cracked by the powerful undersea earthquake and ensuing tsunami, has made a deep impression on people around the world who are aghast at the growing nightmare in the Far East. At first, artist James White, a 34 year-old freelance graphic designer from Halifax, Nova Scotia, who designs under the name Signalnoise, created the digital image as a way to encourage people to give to the Red Cross and other charities. He said that designed the image in under an hour. “It was a simple way to illustrate the destruction from the earthquake using the rising sun,” White told the Daily News.”Something powerful to provoke help and aid from other people.”White was not prepared for the international interest in the image, which quickly went viral. He then decided to make turn the image into a poster — and the 18-inch-by-24-inch artwork quickly sold out. White, who works alone, is working quickly to put out a second run, which will be available on a first-come, first-serve basis. All profits will be donated to charities that are working to help the thousands of Japanese citizens who are in grave danger after the deadly 8.9-magnitude earthquake on March 11.” lgoldwert@nydailynews.com

  3. This is a folly any marketing professional could make. By concentrating on the flashy designs and visual tricks, nonprofits sometimes fail to remember what counts. Promotional material should be a platform for the message and mission of the nonprofit (just as you say in your article). It’s important to ensure that potential donors walk away with a connection to your cause. Here are some tips for really understanding your audience and personalizing your message.
    http://bit.ly/hsrXp8

  4. This is a folly any marketing professional could make. By concentrating on the flashy designs and visual tricks, nonprofits sometimes fail to remember what counts. Promotional material should be a platform for the message and mission of the nonprofit (just as you say in your article). It’s important to ensure that potential donors walk away with a connection to your cause. Here are some tips for really understanding your audience and personalizing your message.
    http://bit.ly/hsrXp8

  5. Unless you’re the printer; selling posters is not the same thing as making a difference.

  6. Unless you’re the printer; selling posters is not the same thing as making a difference.

  7. REG and others…As of 2 weeks ago, the poster raised $15,000 for relief efforts. How is that not making a difference?
    The point is this blog bashes agencies for anything design oriented and with a little research you will find that this was the work of a freelance designer that was so moved by the tragedy that he created something that HAS MADE A DIFFERENCE and not just to win an award as the author of this blog suggests.

  8. REG and others…As of 2 weeks ago, the poster raised $15,000 for relief efforts. How is that not making a difference?
    The point is this blog bashes agencies for anything design oriented and with a little research you will find that this was the work of a freelance designer that was so moved by the tragedy that he created something that HAS MADE A DIFFERENCE and not just to win an award as the author of this blog suggests.

  9. John, I think the point Jeff tries to make with ‘Stupid Nonprofit Ads’ is that if you are a charity trying to raise funds, abstraction and design don’t work nearly as well as showing the reality of the problem and demonstrating the solution in a tangible donor centred way.
    So, this one-off freelancer making $15,000 is great and will make a difference, but charities shouldn’t be tempted by this example – particularly when it is being promoted by super-cool funky brand agencies trying win awards and pick-up business at the expense of those charities and, in the end, the people they are trying to help.

  10. John, I think the point Jeff tries to make with ‘Stupid Nonprofit Ads’ is that if you are a charity trying to raise funds, abstraction and design don’t work nearly as well as showing the reality of the problem and demonstrating the solution in a tangible donor centred way.
    So, this one-off freelancer making $15,000 is great and will make a difference, but charities shouldn’t be tempted by this example – particularly when it is being promoted by super-cool funky brand agencies trying win awards and pick-up business at the expense of those charities and, in the end, the people they are trying to help.

  11. I’m not sure a freelance poster raising $15,000 could be called “making a difference” — at least not unless I knew more. Is that $15k gross or net? If it’s net, what was the ROI? Was any connection made between donors and charities? Was there any long-term value created? These are the questions that responsible professionals should ask about any project.
    I wouldn’t expect a freelance designer to know to ask those questions. After all, all he did was do some stark, cool, modern design that — alas — turned about to be amazingly unoriginal. At least he did something socially conscious with the proceeds.
    But I can’t help wonder how it might have been if the same energy had gone into designing something effective (i.e., not abstract design) with a clear fundraising offer and in an effective medium (i.e. probably not a poster) and some additional thought given to audience strategy and long-term strategy. That project could have raised a lot more than $15,000 — not only for Japan, but for future needs and in other places. That’s how the professionals are supposed to do it.
    Please note that this post is not about the ad agency award cartel. It’s merely about the emptiness of abstract design, and the laughable situation that when these “creative” people are set loose, so many come up with the same idea.

  12. I’m not sure a freelance poster raising $15,000 could be called “making a difference” — at least not unless I knew more. Is that $15k gross or net? If it’s net, what was the ROI? Was any connection made between donors and charities? Was there any long-term value created? These are the questions that responsible professionals should ask about any project.
    I wouldn’t expect a freelance designer to know to ask those questions. After all, all he did was do some stark, cool, modern design that — alas — turned about to be amazingly unoriginal. At least he did something socially conscious with the proceeds.
    But I can’t help wonder how it might have been if the same energy had gone into designing something effective (i.e., not abstract design) with a clear fundraising offer and in an effective medium (i.e. probably not a poster) and some additional thought given to audience strategy and long-term strategy. That project could have raised a lot more than $15,000 — not only for Japan, but for future needs and in other places. That’s how the professionals are supposed to do it.
    Please note that this post is not about the ad agency award cartel. It’s merely about the emptiness of abstract design, and the laughable situation that when these “creative” people are set loose, so many come up with the same idea.

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The future of fundraising is not about social media, online video, or SEM. It’s not about any technology, medium, or technique. It’s about donors. If you need to raise funds from donors, you need to study them, respect them, and build everything you do around them. And the future? It’s already here. More.

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Jeff BrooksJeff Brooks has been serving the nonprofit community for more than 35 years and blogging about it since 2005. He considers fundraising the most noble of pursuits and hopes you’ll join him in that opinion. You can reach him at jeff [at] jeff-brooks [dot] com. More.


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The future of fundraising is not about social media, online video, or SEM. It’s not about any technology, medium, or technique. It’s about donors. If you need to raise funds from donors, you need to study them, respect them, and build everything you do around them. And the future? It’s already here. More.

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Jeff Brooks has been serving the nonprofit community for more than 30 years and blogging about it since 2005. He considers fundraising the most noble of pursuits and hopes you’ll join him in that opinion. You can reach him at jeff [at] jeff-brooks [dot] com.

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