Is there still a place for shock advertising in the charity sector?

A Food for All campaign run by our client Oxfam during December 2012, has gained coverage in the press, because it has changed tack from the stereotypical 1980’s shock tactic to a more positive and balanced image of Africa that inspires hope. Oxfam state that this was necessary as three out of four people are now desensitised to shocking images that depict hunger and disease.

This got us to wondering whether there is still a place for ‘shock advertising’ in the charity sector. We came across an article in the Guardian, published in August 2012, proposing that charities should abandon shock advertising and concentrate on finding new creative ways to reach people and encourage their involvement. Author Regina Yau suggested that positive campaigns generate good will. In another survey conducted by PR Week, 47% of the public stated that seeing shocking images did not make them more likely to donate.

However, in contrast, Save The Children claim that their UK donors are more willing to give when presented with more disturbing imagery.

So we asked the Computerlovers to fill out a short survey after watching six charity ads, to see which were most effective in influencing an action. Some had the shock factor; others, such as the British Heart Foundation’s — Vinnie Jones CPR ad, take a different approach — see appendix for a full list of the ads we viewed.

What did we discover?

Our participants found the NSPCC ad the most shocking, followed by the Road Safety ad.

Interestingly, these two ads were also listed as the most memorable, and as the ones that respondents were most likely to tell their friends about.

NSPCC — Cartoon

Road Safety — Julie knew her killer

Changing Behaviour

The top performing ads were the Road Safety — Julie knew her killer ad, and the British Heart Foundation (BHF) — Vinnie Jones CPR ad.


The BHF ad also scored the highest for prompting viewers to find out more. The results for the BHF’s ad are interesting when compared to those for the Stroke Preventation ad, as both had the aim of making the viewer remember a sequence to help save a life, but they delivered the lesson in a very different way. The results of our survey show that BHF’s approach was more successful in terms of memorability, shareability and encouraging the viewer to seek further information.

British Heart Foundation — Hands on CPR

Stroke Prevention — Act Fast

The least memorable was the British Red Cross — I am a Crisis ad, although there was some appreciation from a creative point of view.

Influencing Donations

The NSPCC ad also scored highly on influencing people to donate. We think that the creative style of this ad is what raised awareness and got people talking. Portraying the vulnerability of the child brought out the protective instinct in viewers.

The Barnardos ad showed viewers how their donation can help ‘break the chain’. We liked this as it really created awareness for what Barnardos do, in our survey — 55% said they would share it online, and 36% said this would prompt them to donate.

Barnardos — Life Story

Our conclusions

We believe that there is still a place for shock advertising in the charity sector but that its value depends on what the campaign is trying to achieve.

The light-hearted BHF campaign was successful in influencing people to find out more because it was entertaining and fresh, whereas the more factual approach from Stroke Prevention felt a little too generic and as such wasn’t particularly inspiring.

If charities are trying to encourage people to donate or share, the shock factor can still be effective (the harsh truth shown in a fresh way is still incredibly motivating, as seen in the NSPCC work). If the drive is education, the BHF’s ad proves that there are other ways to get the message across — in this case by using humour and an unexpected celebrity cameo.

Overall, new ideas and a fresh approach proved key to drawing us in.


NSPCC — Cartoon

Road safety — Julie knew her killer

Barnardos — Life Story

British Heart Foundation — Vinnie CPR

British Red Cross — I am a crisis

Stroke Prevention — Act Fast

[4]: “NSPCC – Cartoon”
[5]: “Road Safety – Julie knew her killer”
[6]: “Barnardos – Life Story”
[7]: “BHF – Vinnie CPR”
[8]: “British Red Cross – I am a crisis”
[9]: “Stroke Prevention – Act Fast”