Stupid ads succeed in stroking egos while avoiding response

Stupid ads

If you create a stupid nonprofit ad and The New York Times runs an article about it before it ever appears in real life, you can probably declare victory, and get off scot-free despite the lack of fundraising that’s going to happen.

But that doesn’t mean it isn’t a shockingly stupid waste of time, money, and opportunity.

Like this howler of a campaign for Action Against Hunger. The Times article is here: Antihunger Campaign Forgoes Images of Starving Children. An article in the Times is a lot of publicity.

Here’s one of the two ads that make up the campaign:

Actionagainst

The second ad shows an open pizza box with an Oreo-sized pizza in it. The copy: “Hungry? Imagine living on only a tiny fraction of what you eat each day. Every year, 3.5 million children try — and don’t survive. You can help prevent this.”

Both ads include the logo of Ultimat Vodka, which is donating around $400,000 worth space for the ads in Esquire, Harper’s Bazaar, Saveur, Wine Enthusiast, and The New York Times Magazine.

I’m not troubled by the presence of a Vodka company in a hunger ad, and I doubt it would trouble very many donors, either.

Anyway, there aren’t going to be many donors to worry about. Because the ads make several serious rookie mistakes:


  • Big numbers. The fact that 3.5 million children die each year is not going to motivate giving. It’s going to turn away giving. People give to help solve human-sized, solvable problems.
  • Jargon. Guess what? Most people don’t know what “acute malnutrition” is. It’s a medical term with little emotional punch or life connection.
  • Abstract imagery. If you want people to donate to help people, you’re going to have to show images of people. Not paper dolls; not miniature pizzas. Donors don’t have time to play your mind games. Just show them what needs to be done. (The creative director at the clueless agency that created the ads explained it with the creative directors’ Trump Card: “cognitive dissonance.” Sorry, cognitive dissonance is a code phrase for “no response.”)
  • No coupon. Even a first-year junior copywriter in fundraising who’s barely sober most of the time knows that if you want response, you’ve got to include a coupon. Even though most responses now come via the web or the phone. (Oops! They forgot to include a phone number!)

Beyond all that, here’s more news for you: Print advertising is not a very good way to reach donors. Even without all those rookie mistakes, it’s unlikely to work. Print is still viable in very special circumstances, such as during disasters. Also, it can work in very low-cost publications, such as small-town newspapers. Certainly not the high-end publications they’re going to be in.

Of course, the ad placements are covered by the vodka company, and they probably wouldn’t be interested in the paying for a standard old ugly direct-response ad.

This whole project appears to be a big circle of ego-stroking on the part of the charity, the ad agency, and the vodka company. And for that purpose, it’s very successful. It became so the moment a New York Times reporter picked up the scent.

But it’s still an incredibly stupid nonprofit ad.

(Nancy Schwartz has a detailed and excellent critique of the ads here.)

More Stupid Nonprofit Ads.


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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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