Ruffling feathers: Running hard-hitting campaigns in an age of sensitivity

In an age of hyper-sensitivity, how can charities run hard-hitting campaigns without falling foul of mass criticism?


In early July 2019, posters displaying fake cigarette packets and the words ‘obesity is a cause of cancer too’ started to appear on billboards around the UK. TV and radio ads followed, as too did messaging across digital and social media. Shoppers were handed fake cigarette packets containing chips.

They were all part of a renewed campaign by Cancer Research UK (CRUK) to raise awareness of the link between obesity and cancer. Its first outing a year before had been greeted with a barrage of criticism, and this latest phase was no different.

It’s a message that is proving difficult to land in some quarters. As the ads went live, so too did social media, with people accusing the charity of fat shaming and inappropriate – even inaccurate – advertising.

Adding further fuel to the fire was an open letter and a petition calling for an end to the campaign, featuring signatures from more than 60 scientists and health professionals. They claimed that the campaign was “harmful and misleading” and that CRUK was creating a culture of blame by implying that “individuals are largely in control of and responsible for their body size (and therefore cancer)”. They also criticised the charity’s partnership with Slimming World, saying there was a clear conflict of interest due to the company’s commercial interests.

Yet despite the condemnation, CRUK stood firm. It was ready for the backlash. Its team engaged with debate on social media, issued counter statements and directed people towards its scientific evidence.

“Our campaign is not meant to make anyone feel bad about their weight or make anyone think negatively about people who are overweight or obese; it is based on scientific evidence that we have a duty to put in the public domain,” a spokesperson for CRUK tells Charity Times. It’s a strategy that has paid off – in the immediate-term at least.

“When the campaign first launched, public awareness of the link between obesity and cancer went from 17% to 43%, and we’ve since seen a similarly dramatic increase among MPs. When we’re not actively campaigning, that awareness falls – so although we don’t want to cause any offence, ultimately the campaign is doing what it needs to do,” the charity says.

However, for all the positive results, it would be remiss to forget there have also been negative consequences for the brand, with many people on social media claiming they would cancel their donations as a result of the campaign – something that has highlighted the often delicate relationship between awareness-raising and fundraising.

“A charity brand has many things to achieve. Raising awareness is one, inspiring people to give is another,” says Dan Dufour of brand agency BrandDufour. “I’m sure CRUK wouldn’t want one area of the work to negatively impact the other. But if I’m a supporter and CRUK have offended me, am I going to turn to Macmillan instead?”

Lessons for others

If you’re a charity looking to run a hard-hitting campaign but are feeling a bit nervous about doing so after watching the response to CRUK’s obesity campaign, what should you be thinking about with regards to your approach?

“The most effective campaigns are built on clarity about why you are doing it, what action you want to happen, who you are talking to and what will trigger their action, as well as clear messaging and well-chosen channels,” says Adeela Warley, chief executive at Charity Comms.

CRUK agrees, advising charities to consider their messaging according to the channel and audience. “For example, posters can be a blunt tool, but blogs and social media can provide a platform to explain further detail and data,” their spokesperson says.

The age and experiences of the audience should be factored into planning, too. For example, while people of a certain age will remember the hard-hitting government and charity campaigns of the late 80s and early 90s – such as the Barnardo’s baby with the cockroach in its mouth, and the AIDs campaign featuring grave stones – millennials haven’t been as exposed to that style of advertising.

“That’s probably why people have got their knickers in a twist, because the CRUK campaign has been more controversial than they are used to, particularly in comparison to adverts such as Sport England’s This Girl Can, which is very positive and uplifting,” Dufour says.

Internal and external stakeholder engagement will also be critical. “Controversial campaigns must be supported by a commitment to have responsive, open and honest conversations with supporters and critics, particularly in our 24-hour news and social media environment”, notes Warley, something CRUK reiterates: “Stakeholder engagement, both internally and externally, should be a priority throughout the campaign cycle – not only gathering views, but also making sure everyone is thoroughly briefed and regularly updated. Don’t forget about internal communications as part of this, especially for senior staff who may take on media interviews and publicfacing teams who may need to answer questions,” it says.

Importantly, the pros and cons should be considered. “Consider the ramifications, plan for them and be prepared. Sense-check the work and use PR to ensure the intended message is not misunderstood. Always refer back to your original objective, and if the positive outcomes outweigh the negative, you can justify it. So go for it but be willing to pull it and apologise if needed,” advises Linn Frost, a partner at the advertising, media and music agency, Truant London.

Here research can and does help. For example, despite what others may infer, CRUK knew exactly what it wanted to say and how to say it – in part thanks to the extensive research it did beforehand. This included speaking to people with a range of body weights to find out how best to communicate the message to the public, running an online survey of 1,000 members of the public and holding focusgroup-style discussions to get feedback from people with experience of obesity, as well as smokers and ex-smokers, and people affected by cancer, along with independent obesity experts and public health organisations.

“People told us that we have a responsibility to give them the facts about cancer risk. We know from previous campaigns that the comparison of obesity and smoking focuses attention on this important message. We used the comparison to show how policy change can help people form healthier habits, not to compare tobacco with food, and we use straightforward language to make it factual rather than personal,” says the charity’s spokesperson.

Branding aside, there are other similarities between this latest obesity campaign and previous antismoking campaigns. Just as this one has coincided with debates around body positivity, self-acceptance and mental health, the very first antitobacco campaigns took place at a time when smoking was viewed as empowering, individualist and symbolic of freedom.

“It was incredibly difficult for ad agencies to get the message out and for the public to accept that their smoking habits could risk cancer. It has taken decades of persistent and consistent advertising to create stronger awareness of the link between smoking and cancer and to promote deterrent behaviours,” says Usha Sundaram, a senior lecturer in consumer and digital marketing from Norwich Business School at the University of East Anglia, suggesting that it could take many years before the obesity message really sinks in.

Crucially, hard-hitting campaigns of this nature require courage, says Warley. “Charities must not be afraid to be bold and innovative in their communications. Campaigning by its nature is designed to punch through and drive change and this will always divide opinion,” she says.

However, this isn’t always easy or achievable for charities. “Charities are usually run by a committee, making it difficult to get clear, bold decisions,” Frost reflects. “If you try to please everyone, the work gets diluted and less impactful. A charity has a duty to support and protect its beneficiaries. This makes being brave much harder as the consequences of getting it wrong are far greater.”

Regardless, there’s no hiding from the fact that to have impact, acampaign needs to stand out. As CRUK’s team confirm: “Research has shown that raising awareness of an issue, getting it talked about and making it part of popular opinion paves the way for effective public health policy; this approach underpins our whole campaign.” This means charities wanting to run hard-hitting campaigns have to accept that some people won’t like what’s being said.

“Anyone who takes a stand on something has to be prepared for the fact they’re likely to offend someone and that it will be magnified on social media”, says Sundaram. “This can be incredibly powerful but it is a double-edged sword, which is something charities will have to manage as part of their strategy.”

However, as Dufour points out, some of the best campaigns are a bit like Marmite. “There is no point putting something out that is vanilla as it won’t get a reaction,” he says. “After many years of charities being scared of putting their heads above water, its good to see something that’s getting everyone talking,” he adds. “Love it or hate it, fair play to CRUK for being brave.”

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