Opinion: why 'sadvertising' and melancholy marketing doesn’t help charities

Written by Sophie Russell
08/05/19

When was the last time you saw a charity ad that made you donate? Last night? Last year? Never? If your answer is the latter, you are in the majority. The third sector is facing a fundraising crisis of sort. Yes, charity fundraising activities are under the microscope, while trust in donation destination and transparency are low. But a third factor exists: the often miserable state of ads charities pump out.

The charity sector has traditionally relied on shock tactics and sadness — so-called ‘sadvertising’ — to raise awareness or sign up donors. In the same way we associate perfume ads with turgid conceptual nonsense, we associate charities with very common tropes.

Think of the emaciated child complete with hovering mosquitos; the despondent, beaten-looking dog in a cage; the silhouette of a cancer survivor in family situations.

Victimhood, guilt, grief. These sorts of themes have been run ad nauseum, to the point that viewers have become desensitised to their messaging. Charities can’t manipulate people into parting with money any more. The sector, already facing cynicism, now faces a quantifiable ‘compassion fatigue’.

To declare an interest, at BRAVE, we make ads for Age UK. While researching its last campaign, ‘No one,’ we felt inclined to test using biometric tools (which accurately measures emotional reactions to audio-visual stimuli) how people respond to different types of charity advertising, scoring each of the 11 campaigns according to those reactions.

The results are fascinating. Take Water Aid, the charity our sample was the least likely to donate to after watching its advert. It used all the tropes one might expect. Vignettes of despondent-looking African children drinking something approaching sewage, narrated by a sombre cameraman who has witnessed these horrors first hand and wants you to donate.

Using face-tracking, the most prominent emotions our cohort expressed were disgust and fear. Measuring the strength of emotional response through galvanic skin response, we saw spikes in emotion when footage of a newly-installed well with smiling children drinking clean water was shown. But when the advert flicks back to children drinking dirty water, that positive response disappears.

Juxtapose that with Cancer Research UK’s ad featuring Adyan, a singing, smiling young cancer sufferer who beats the disease and goes back to school. You won’t be surprised to learn it came out on top for both engagement levels and emotional response in our research into ten of the top charities in the UK with a score of 61 out of 100 – by contrast, Oxfam, bottom, scores 35.

High emotional intensity was seen throughout, which we believe is due to the fact this advert used a real person to tell the story of cancer recovery. It helped to connect with the audience emotionally — it was relevant to people’s lives and relatable: we all know a little boy who could have been Adyan.

The advert also adhered to what is known as the peak / end rule, whereby people judge an experience largely based on how they felt at its most intense point and at its end, rather than based on the total sum or average of every moment. Making the ending a happy one created big spikes in joy when the boy was seen fully recovered at the end of the advert.

While there is no definitive way to make charity ads, the rest of the data identifies two specific concepts that all of the most successful creative offered. The first is the idea of an ‘empathy gap’. Some people find it hard to relate to distant issues of suffering. For example, the Save the Children ad in joint fourth makes a distant issue more relevant and relatable with the clever use of censoring, which created high levels of engagement from our audience.

Likewise the notion of ‘herd mentality’ was incorporated into many of the high scoring ads. Cancer Research (which claimed both third and first place for separate ads) expressed the idea that other people intend on leaving a gift in their will to encourage viewers to consider it themselves. If we see ‘people like us’ doing something we feel more familiar and confident to do the same.

Our perfect charity ad, then, is sanguine, not morose. It uses real-life, relatable human stories that close the empathy gap — not the spoils of war and famine to guilt trip viewers into donating. It demonstrates first-hand how your donation will make a difference. Here’s to hoping the days of melancholy marketing are numbered.

Sophie Russell is senior planner at BRAVE agency.




  • Charity Times Awards Event Date: 2nd October 2019 Event Deadline: Park Plaza, Westminster Bridge, London For booking and enquiries email linda.libetta@charitytimes.com
  • Charity Times Pensions Roundtable Event Date: 10th October 2019 Event Deadline: Barnett Waddingham, 2 London Wall Place, London For booking and enquiries email linda.libetta@charitytimes.com
  • Investors Forum – Climate Change Event Date: 22nd October 2019 Event Deadline: 1 Birdcage Walk Westminster, London SW1H 9JJ For booking and enquiries email linda.libetta@charitytimes.com
  • Charity Times Annual Conference Event Date: 6th May 2020 Event Deadline: The Waldorf Hilton, London
  • Property Roundtable Event Date: 2020 TBC Event Deadline: Searcy’s at the Gherkin For booking and enquiries email linda.libetta@charitytimes.com
  • Better Society Awards Event Date: 23rd May 2019 Event Deadline: 25th January 2019 London Marriott Hotel, Grosvenor Square, London
Most read stories...