A camera pans over a chain link fence. Behind it, dozens of uniform-clad children—boys in crisp white shirts and girls in plaid jumpers with red ribbons in their hair—beam as a simple acoustic guitar plays and a child’s voice hums in tune with the melody in the background. Cut to children holding up signs telling you what “we” don’t do.
The “we” in the ad is non-profit organization Child Rights and You (CRY). Like many prominent NGOs, the Mumbai-based children’s aid organization used to receive odd requests. Even though it works for big-picture issues such as universal access to education and elimination of child labour, people would call to ask if they could donate the 100 blankets they had collected to their orphanages. The group doesn’t run any.
So, a few years ago, CRY, which represents many children’s advocacy groups, changed its name from Child Relief and You to reflect its focus on its fight for children’s rights. Like CRY, some non-profit organizations are turning to increasingly slick television and radio spots to get their message across.
Often benefiting from free or heavily discounted airtime thanks to tie-ups with stations and media organizations,the NGOs reach a larger audience of potential supporters, while the stations look good to their viewers and score points for corporate social responsibility, say those who track non-profit advertising.
Only ‘blue-chip’ organizations such as CRY (top), the Heroes Project(above), or groups working on the so-called fashionable issues have the resources and connections to tie-up with large media partners
For the advertisers, doing spots for social causes comes with additional advantages. These help win top prizes at international shows such as Cannes. Some commercials which win awards sometimes do not even see a public release—they are dubbed fake ads. “Come December, there are a lot of guys who walk into NGO offices and say, ‘Why don’t you let us release this?’” says Sajan Raj Kurup, now chairman and chief creative director of CreativeLand Asia, but who worked on the CRY campaign during his time with ad giant Grey. “They get exposure, the ad agency gets something out of it. It’s easy.”
And for many NGOs, exposure is key.
For CRY, the idea was to create a strong brand. And, do it without tear-stained faces and disturbing images that often define advertising for charitable organizations, say its creators. “People don’t want to hear that the world is ending. They want to be presented with a solution or, at least, some little action they can take right now that is clearly linked to a solution to this problem,” says Simon Collings, chief executive officer of the UK-based non-profit organization, The Resource Alliance, which supports an annual contest for the best promotion and ad campaigns.
“Say, the issue is drought. You have to tell them, ‘The Rs1,000 you donate today will buy 10 trees that can help improve water retention on the farms of poor rural families’,” adds Collings. “You need to do more than make them see it. You need to make it as easy as possible for them to do something about it.”
As the ad closes we learn what CRY does, thanks to another crop of signs from smiling children. They help “dest-roy barriers” of caste, gender and religion, lobby the government for child-friendly policies and help parents get children into school.
“A lot of social advertising features people crying, and has created a sense of gloom and doom. We wanted to change that. We really wanted to be optimistic,” says CreativeLand’s Kurup.
The Heroes Project, a Mumbai-based HIV/AIDS awareness non-profit organization with ties to actor Richard Gere and socialite Parmeshwar Godrej, has tie-ups with Star TV for spots like the one featuring cricketer Rahul Dravid in the locker room, adding his equipment piece-by-piece like a warrior preparing for battle. The implied theme: Taking steps to prevent HIV/AIDS should be as routine as having the right equipment on the pitch.
But, only blue-chip organizations such as CRY, the Heroes Project, or groups working on the so-called fashionable issues—many point to HIV/AIDS—have the resources and connections to tie-up with the large media partners and land top celebrities like Dravid to be their public face. They get their voices heard, say representatives of non-profit organizations, while smaller organizations or groups doing controversial work are limited to online campaigns and old-fashioned word of mouth to spread their message, according to non-profit and advertising industry representatives.
Even groups which have occasionally sallied into the ad world say their resources are better directed elsewhere— either because they didn’t see big returns or because grass-roots methods work better for grass-roots organizations. Some stay away from mainstream advertising, though even their representatives acknowledge the importance of being high-profile.
“We haven’t been very successful. We were looking into television but we would need donors. We can’t afford it,” says Shoba Sachdev, a consultant for The Spastics Society of India, which runs support and awareness programmes for the disabled. “We feel our focus is better placed on campaigns to see kids mainstreamed in schools rather than targeting the general public.”
For Greenpeace India, the organization’s work is its best advertising, says spokesman Gene Hashmi. The most effective campaign lately was sending out snapshots of its activists chained to the gates of a factory in Uttarakhand—which the organization said was producing toxic light bulbs—on a hot summer day.
“It wasn’t pretty,” says Hashmi. “People were puking, people were passing out and getting hosed down with water, and you can see all that. But we knew it would make people look at what others are willing to do and ask themselves what they did today.”
The result of the campaign, which cost the organization little to no money, was more than 18,000 hits in one day to a website for its “Ban the Bulb” campaign. It had previously received only a few hundred hits.
The group can take videos of its protests or stunts designed to garner media attention for a cause, like skydiving into a crowded place, and post them on popular Internet sites, reaching an audience more likely to support its initiatives than any television commercial ever would, said Hashmi. He spent years as a creative director at a leading global ad agency before joining the non-profit sector.
“Why do I need newspapers or Rediff or MSN when I have YouTube and MySpace? It’s beautiful,” says Hashmi. “The focus is on whatever we can get free. Every rupee we raise is hard-earned, and is better spent on the streets as part of our campaigns than on ads.”
But he notes that the expensive television spots often do come free and have a purpose other than raising awareness and money for a good cause. They are designed, written and produced to win awards for the agencies that make them. “Every year, I know it is awards time when my inbox gets clogged with offers from guys saying they made this great spot and can they put our logo on it,” he says. Often, it is clear that they know little about Greenpeace’s mission and are just “shopping” for a cause for a pre-made commercial, aimed squarely at the judges in Cannes and other places where the industry hands out its top prizes, according to Hashmi.
Like Greenpeace, Amnesty International India prefers to stay away from mainstream advertising. It concentrates its efforts on SMSes to its supporters, focusing on its campaigns against torture and other hot-button issues that don’t exactly have the major media companies clamouring to give them time and space. But representatives acknowledge it is sometimes important to go high-profile.
“Today, you have to search for visibility,” says Sana Das, Amnesty’s coordinator for growth, membership and activism. “The whole world has turned into a series of images. If you aren’t represented in that world, it’s possible that people might just pass you by. Even though you might be saying some of the most important things that can be said, no one might hear them.”