November 13, 2011

More Charities Give Their Messages a Shock Treatment

Dan Toulgoet/Vancouver Courier

Yael Cohen (right) raised money for her charity by selling T-shirts with an expletive about cancer. She made the shirt for her mom (left).

Women teasingly taking off lingerie; obscene language flying left and right; graphic violence both bloody and disturbing. Is this the content of some R-rated film? Could be. But these days, eye-opening scenes like this can also be found in charity marketing campaigns.

Some cases in point:

  • The two-year-old Canadian charity, F*** Cancer, is establishing an American branch to expand its efforts to educate people about cancer risks while making uncensored use of the F-word.
  • People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals will soon promote animal rights on an adult-content Web site using the new triple-X Internet domain for pornography.
  • T-shirts and wristbands produced by breast-cancer charities bearing saucy slogans such as “I Love Boobies” have run afoul of many school officials, and bans forbidding adolescent students from wearing these “lewd” items have sparked legal battles.
  • In September, broadcasting authorities in Ireland pulled a public-service announcement from the air created by the Irish Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, which showed a child being beaten by an adult.

“Shock advertising has been around for long time, and it just seems like a natural evolution that nonprofits would get to it,” says John J. Burnett, author of Nonprofit Marketing Best Practices.

“Showing starving babies used to be about as shocking as you can get, and traditionally you never showed anyone in pain,” he says. “But now that’s just vanilla.”

Mr. Burnett, a marketing consultant in Carlsbad, Calif., understands that in these tough economic times, charities are trying harder than ever to get attention, and he acknowledges that some of these efforts are aimed at young people who view them as “cool and off the wall.”

However, he cautions, “the risks are greater than the level of awareness they are going to create. You could end up trivializing the cause or diminishing the actual problem.”

Cursing Cancer

Yael Cohen, founder of F*** Cancer, says she didn’t set out to be the head of a charity that uses “shock” marketing.

Two years ago she gave her mother, who was battling breast cancer, a homemade T-shirt reading “F*** Cancer” to wear around the house. But when she decided to wear it in public, bells went off.

“It just resonated with people,” Ms. Cohen says of the shirt’s message. “I knew we had something very powerful when strangers came up to hug my mom. A lot organizations spend time trying to create edgy and eye-catching campaigns, but F*** Cancer just happened.”

Armed with a slogan that Ms. Cohen says is an “authentic emotional response to cancer,” she set up a charity whose mission is to educate young people about cancer risks and warning signs.

It raised more than $1-million in its first year, much of it by selling F*** Cancer T-shirts. (The item is available in a censored version, though Ms. Cohen says, “We sell far more of the explicit shirts.”)

“It’s a really powerful tool as long as you know how to use it and you don’t overuse it,” she says of the curse word at her charity’s core.

“We don’t use 'f***’ unless it’s next to the word 'cancer,’ and it’s never sexual or violent. It opens the door to a demographic you otherwise have no access to.”

The charity, in Vancouver, British Columbia, already has an office in New York and has applied for charity status in the United States.

'Channeling Anger’

While F*** Cancer makes perhaps the most blatant use of an obscenity, off-kilter marketing approaches and colorful language are not new in the world of smaller cancer charities.

“I would say that when you are targeting a market that doesn’t normally get targeted in cancer, you can take risks, and those risks are the lack of need for approval from mainstream cancer organizations,” says Matthew Zachary, founder of the I’m Too Young for This Cancer Foundation, in New York, a 16-year-old support group for young adults with cancer.

The charity rallies around the slogan “Stupid Cancer,” though it also uses the tagline, “Give Cancer the Bird.” That sentiment is printed on shirts and wristbands alongside a cartoon bird, although when the charity first started, it also offered a version with a human hand making the obscene gesture.

“We started out a lot more edgy to get attention, and it worked,” says Mr. Zachary, who started the group when he was 21 and “channeling anger” as he battled brain cancer. “Now we have intentionally become a little more demure.”

The charity raised $375,000 last year, but it claims an impact beyond the dollars it has raised for its mission of providing emotional support to young cancer patients.

The group says its social-media and online campaigns—including a weekly “Stupid Cancer Show” Web cast, together with regional and national workshops and conferences—have reached five million young people affected by the disease.

The nation’s largest cancer organization, the American Cancer Society, declined to comment about either group, but Susan G. Komen for the Cure, the breast-cancer charity in Dallas, said it takes a broad perspective on how some small nonprofits use language and imagery.

“We understand that some cancer groups are trying to reach younger people with more provocative, in-your-face statements,” says Andrea Rader, spokeswoman for Komen. “We don’t object to that, we just don’t do it.”

Controversial Bracelets

The trend Ms. Rader identifies seems particularly prevalent among breast-cancer charities, which have for several years now employed decidedly nonclinical terms when reaching out to young donors and supporters.

Kim McAtee, marketing manager at the Keep a Breast Foundation, in Carlsbad, Calif., says her group has used the term “boobies” in marketing efforts since its founding 11 years ago.

The charity’s “I Love Boobies” wristbands appeared in 2004, and the group has sold more than seven million of them to raise money for efforts to help young women learn ways to detect signs of breast cancer.

Sales of the wristbands and other merchandise accounted for more than 90 percent of the nearly $7-million the charity raised in 2010.

In the past couple of years, however, some schools or school districts have deemed the wristbands’ wording inappropriate—or even “lewd.” This spring a federal court overturned Pennsylvania’s Easton Area School District’s ban on the “boobie” bands after the American Civil Liberties Union took up the cause on free-speech grounds.

“It was never meant to be shocking but a means to create a conversation about breast cancer among young people,” Ms. McAtee says. “We take our messaging extremely seriously, and we have a board of breast-cancer survivors that advises us on all of our marketing and slogans. We want to make sure what we put out there is respectful.”

An 'Edgy’ Brand

For the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, in Norfolk, Va., controversial marketing is both old hat and by design.

“We found that, over time, our raciest actions are our most effective,” says Lindsay Rajt, manager of campaigns at the 31-year-old animal-rights charity. The group’s “I’d Rather Go Naked Than Wear Fur” campaign features suggestive images of actresses, porn stars, and supermodels, and an ad promoting vegetarianism via lingerie-clad women suggestively caressing vegetables were deemed by NBC as too risqué to air during its 2009 Super Bowl broadcast.

Ms. Rajt stops short of calling the forthcoming Web site a “porn site” but says it will contain “some of the graphic imagery that people visiting a triple-X domain are probably looking for.”

Also included will be graphic images of animal abuse, “designed to get people to think about the choices they are making in their daily lives and then take action for animals.”

That this latest sexualized effort could anger some viewers is of little concern for the charity.

“We’re not trying to win a popularity contest,” Ms. Rajt says. “If some people don’t like us, that’s OK, but we want the issue of animal rights to at least make it into public discussion.”

Nancy Schwartz, a nonprofit marketing consultant in Maplewood, N.J., says PETA is in a better position than most charities to adopt “shock” marketing because of its established reputation for being “radical and edgy” in both word and deed.

“Marketing needs to be consistent with the brand,” Ms. Schwartz says. “People hate being misled. If you use taboo subjects in an ad and the rest of your programming and approach are not at all radical or risqué, then you run the risk of having an audience question your authenticity. But everyone knows PETA is out there.”

Abused Children

While PETA has established the practice of using erotica to raise the issue of animal abuse, depicting graphic violence to highlight the cause of abused children remains largely taboo.

Ireland’s advertising standards board removed from the airways an ad by the Irish Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, in Dublin, that showed a child speaking out against abuse while a man hit and shook him and pushed him to the floor. (At issue wasn’t the violence so much as that it was only perpetrated by a man, in violation of gender equality guidelines.) The spot is on YouTube, where it has been viewed by more that 600,000 people.

Among those who have seen the public-service announcement is Ben Tanzer, senior director of strategic communications at Prevent Child Abuse America, in Chicago.

“Unequivocally, we would never produce a PSA like that,” Mr. Tanzer says, and not because of gender issues. “Our research shows that if you want people to understand that there are solutions to child abuse, videos like that cause people to shut down. It may upset them, but they are not engaged in a narrative that motivates them to play a role.”