It's a rather uncomfortable truth about the advertising business that agencies often see charity work as an opportunity to show how clever they are over actually helping the charity concerned with its issues.
This is because agencies are generally doing the work at a discount, or even for free, so they figure that the clients shouldn't really interfere too much in whatever work they wish to run. And they wish to run ads that perhaps would win creative awards.
Charity ads are very good at winning awards as most people, including awards juries, feel sympathetically inclined towards the causes involved: it's tough to feel much empathy for a new flavour of toilet cleaner, but the idea of a sanctuary for mistreated donkeys has everyone reaching for the tissues. (Incidentally, the UK Donkey Sanctuary raises $74 million a year, which fills me with both joy and sadness. I mean, I want to see donkeys happy as much as the next soppy animal-lover, but surely there are more pressing causes?)
It's also true that "charity bragging", being visibly keen to support good causes, makes everyone feel better about their place in the world and advertising people are no exception. Working for the public good helps in some way to excuse the less savoury products we may have recommended to the public over the years.
Many companies also like to connect their brands with a sympathetic cause to draw attention from the possibility that they might actually be in it for their own profit: "Buy our microwave and we'll donate 5 cents towards providing wheelchairs for injured tuatara". This is known as "borrowed empathy" or perhaps more accurately as "corporate misdirection", but hey, at least the tuatara get something out of it.
What does a heart attack look like?
A couple of years ago our agency had a brief for the New Zealand Heart Foundation. The client wanted to help the public understand that the symptoms of a heart attack were completely different from what most of them believed.
Most of us had come to believe that heart attacks were rather "Hollywood" and involved a lot of chest clutching and rolling about like an Italian footballer hit by an unexpected puff of wind. In fact, the symptoms could be more accurately characterised as "feeling a little bit crap". New Zealanders were dying that could have been saved if only they'd been aware that the cause of their seemingly trivial symptoms was potentially deadly.
So our creative team put together an idea inviting the TV audience to demonstrate their knowledge as to what a real heart attack looked like. Only of course they would be shown to be wrong and corrected in the error of their ways. We spent a lot of time editing it until we thought it was just right, then called in the clients to show them.
The clients were very happy and congratulated us. Excellent, we thought, and got ready to leave. Then the clients suggested a couple of changes they thought might make the ad just a little easier for the audience to understand. We were aghast. What they were suggesting would ruin our beautiful little ad. We argued our corner, but to no avail. We made the changes with a heavy heart.
The ad went to air with very little fanfare, and if I saw it on TV, I'd cringe slightly, thinking of what it might have been. We'd had such high hopes for it, only now it was, at least to our hypercritical creative eyes, irretrievably flawed.
Whatever works, works
Before long we began to hear feedback from the client that the ad was getting noticed. Patients were turning up at their doctors with suspected heart attacks quoting the symptoms from the ad.
Then TV One News ran a story about how one patient, in particular, had recognised his symptoms from the ad and called an ambulance.
If he hadn't seen the ad he would be dead.
And he wasn't the only one.
The little 30-second television ad that we thought had been creatively damaged was demonstrably keeping people alive. There should be no better feeling in your job than that you are helping save lives - I guess that's why people spend five years training to be doctors and maybe why health workers put up with such low pay. I'm pretty sure it's not for the creative awards.
Great is the enemy of pretty bloody useful
You maybe knew this all along, but advertising sometimes has some pretty skewed priorities.
It's actually easier to make a charity ad that works than it is to create one that wins awards.
So instead of worrying whether or not you're good enough to win, maybe take the easy route and see if you can save some lives instead.
• Paul Catmur worked in advertising at a Quite Good level across New Zealand, the UK and Australia including co-founding an agency in Auckland. This is a series of articles about how to make the best out of maybe not being the best