Articles | Message Development | 7 Steps to Increasing Action (Case Study)

7 Steps to Increasing Action (Case Study)


Have you seen this print ad campaign from Action Against Hunger (AAH)? It’s a great example of how to fail in motivating your audiences to take the actions you need to move your mission forward.

The first ad features a line-up of paper dolls, with one figure much thinner than the others — but no clear call to action. The second ad features this pizza box with mini pizza inside (much less than you and I are used to eating), highlighting that the 3.5 million children under 5 worldwide who die from hunger on annual basis don’t have enough to eat. Readers are asked to visit AAH’s website (for what?) or text in a small donation.

New York Times  writer Jane Levere covered the campaign in her recent advertising column in The Times, and called to get my take on the ads — generously designed pro bono by G2 USA — that will run in high-end consumer magazines including Esquire, Saveur and Harper’s Bazaar. Ultimat Vodka is the cause partner, and purchaser of the ad space (pricy, believe me). Stylistically they’re much like the typical consumer ads in magazines like these — spare, graphically-compelling, more about aesthetics than anything else.

If you read through to the very end of Jane’s column, you’ll see that she quoted my questioning the choice of corporate partner. She also featured my characterization of the ads as abstract in her headline, but what she didn’t include is the balance of my recommendations for productive calls to action, and those are far more important.

Note: It’s common that a journalist focuses on points you made but weren’t what you emphasized or thought were most important. You’re contacted as a subject expert to help the journalist do her job, not to tell the story you want to tell.

Take these seven steps to motivate your network to act now:

1) Be concrete and specific. Abstraction is deadly.

  • These ads are abstract and high-styled, typical of high-end consumer advertising. They mimic the look-and-feel of what I promise you most of the other ads in these magazines look like, so are easy to miss.
  • A concept or abstraction is far harder to grasp than a story about an individual like you or someone you know. Abstraction is a burden on the reader flipping through.  Make it easy for folks to get it.
  • Plus, pizza is not nutritious (nor is vodka)!

2) Feature a single individual, rather than a group or — far worse — daunting stats that seem absolutely insurmountable.

  • Stats on the enormity of problems like child malnourishment (3.5 million children under 5 perish every year from poor nutrition) are daunting, and tend to generate the response…well, I can’t do anything about a problem that’s so huge.
  • Instead, feature one child who has been restored to health through the proper nutrition.
  • Relating to a single individual enables your network to relate to her — one-to-one — far better than to even a small group of kids. Think about how you relate when speaking to a group of 10, versus a one-to-one conversation.

3) Avoiding negative imagery (a.k.a. starving child) is spot on. But focus on a positive story  — with specifics — of someone who’s life is improved as a result of your organization’s work!

  • Bring her (let’s call her Anna) to life with a photo.
  • Add specific details about how AAH’s work has helped restore Anna to health, and what her day is like now–the “after” (now, everyday after school, Anna plays soccer with the girls and boys in her neighborhood, until her grandmother chases her in to sweep the hut and get dinner started for her four younger brothers and sisters).
  • It’s details like this that make Anna’s story real, and enable your prospects to relate this story to the children in their own lives.

4) Write to a single person (let’s call her Judy), not the many you hope to motivate to act. This transforms the interchange to a one-to-one; more conversation than lecture.

  • These ads seem written to the “general public.” Can you imagine speaking the words of either one? You’d never do it.
  • Keep a single member of your target audience (let’s call her Judy) clearly in mind as you craft your concept and content — Judy’s wants, values, morning schedule, face, etc. — to connect. Crafting a persona is a valuable and easily doable way to close the gap with your target audiences, and get to know them so you can shape your messages most effectively. Here’s my how-to guide to persona creation.

5) Reach out to Judy’s heart first, head second.

  • The ads are all head, with their abstract imagery and their stats. They are designed to engage a reader via logic.
  • You’ll be much more successful engaging Judy emotionally (so she can immediately gauge whether there is a match, or not). Her emotional connection (or lack thereof) will direct her rational response.

6) Emphasize a clear, easy-to-do call to action.

  • The paper doll ad has no call to action. The pizza ad features a clear call to action but it’s in small type and the last element in the text block. You really have to work to find it.
  • Any outreach without a clear, doable call to action is a waste. You don’t have to convert (motivate her to give, sign, volunteer) Judy in any one call to action, but you do want to move her forward to the next step.
  • If you want Judy to take that next step, you have to ask her to do so. And make it easy for your her to find and digest the call to action — large and simply-stated is the way to go.

7) Start at the end and work backwards. What is the benchmark you’re trying to hit with the specific marketing project you’re working on now?

  • I’m unsure what AAH is going accomplish with these ads. Building awareness is a valid high-level goal, but is not a benchmark (can’t be measured).
  • There is a chance that AAH will bring folks in the door for the first time, but if they don’t text that $10 contribution, there’s no way they can follow up with these potential supporters.

I want to emphasize that this ad space was an opportunity that AAH was right to accept — premium timing in premium media.

It’s often challenging to direct pro bono contributions, especially on the creative side. Jane Levere cites the originality of the creative direction for focusing on abstract images, rather than those of starving children — that the ads are something that magazine readers are likely not to have seen before for a nonprofit. However, they’re similar to all the consumer ads that run in those media — so are likely to be overlooked. It could have been much different: I see many nonprofit campaigns that are original, sophisticated and effective — in imagery and content — without using the “starving child” approach.

Do these ads work to engage you, and would you be motivated to visit the AAH website or make a text donation? If not, how would you to increase the effectiveness of these ads to motivate action? Please share your point of view here.

Nancy Schwartz in Message Development | 14 comments


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  • G Mrozak

    I decided to read your column before looking at the NYT article or the ads. By the end of your column…
    – I was sure from your description that using pizza in an ad was not a wise choice!
    – I suspected that the ad campaign wanted to avoid the images and approach you suggested because they felt it had been done too often by others. (Never mind that it’s effective.)
    – I was not surprised that the reporter didn’t use what you emphasized. Having done PR for an issues-oriented non-profit in the past, I knew that in many cases, the story concept is already in the reporter’s mind before making phone calls. The calls are to get comments to round out the already-outlined article.

    Looking at the NYT article and the ads just confirms my opinions.

    I doubt that AAH wants folks to look at the paper doll ad and say “Wow, lots of kids die from hunger. That’s a shame,” but the graphics and minimal information lead you toward that mindset. And the pizza ad looks like it’s inspiring readers to think about pizza.

    Maybe these concepts work in Europe, where AAH started, or in commercial advertising–the graphic style is similar. I’d be very curious to see what kind of response these ads get.

  • Nancy Schwartz

    Good question, on the results! I’m going to contact AAH in late December to see if they’ll share them – will be useful to see.

  • Laurie

    I totally agree with you that these ads are just like all the others (commercial) in magazines like this. Even on their own, outside the magazine, they don’t catch my interest at all. I understand what they’re saying about not using starving children, but I think your advice to use a healthy child that has already been helped makes much more sense than their approach. I would be much more likely to read an ad that drew me in through a child’s eyes.

  • This article was fascinating to me for several reasons… I am a marketing director at a nonprofit and my husband is an art director at an ad agency! I was very disappointed at the quality of these ads. Yes, they are different… but good marketing has to be different and *better* and unfortunately, these are not better. You made excellent points in your article, the stats are overwhelming, and what “call to action” is included is small and nondescript. A great example of a call to action with beautiful photos and personal stories is Tom’s shoes. Check out their holiday catalog http://www.toms.com/catalog/holiday/appli.htm?icid=us-home-092011_144?icid=us-home-092011_151
    It it sincere and interesting… I read the whole thing!
    Thanks for your always great advice!

  • Hi,
    Enjoyed the article, totally agree about individualizing it. Constantly try to get that done here. However, I see no problem whatsoever having a vodka partner. First of all, they eat. Secondly, if you can afford vodka, you know you can donate some funds for food. And third, as a vodka drinker, I am glad to see they care. It seems that it’s much easier/acceptable to get anybody’s support about a universal topic like eating as opposed to something that doesn’t necessarily effect a lot of people.

  • Nancy Schwartz

    Rachel, thanks for sharing this great example and your unique perspective.

    Do me a favor and ask your husband what he thinks of the campaign? I’d love to hear what another art director has to say. Thanks.

  • Nancy Schwartz

    Exactly, Laurie. As long as there’s a clear connection between the child featured and the reader, that’s what will spur the gift or other action.

  • Nancy Schwartz

    Thanks for your comment, Laura, which is especially useful coming from a peer working to decrease hunger.

    I see your point of view on the vodka partner but do feel it somewhat weakens the AAH brand. That being said, there’s the old question – better for them to get a vodka-sponsored campaign out there than no campaign at all?

  • As a creative director/writer who’s done my fair share of advocacy ads, I know how hard it is to put a fresh perspective on a chronic or wide-spread problem, be it hunger in Africa or abuse at home. The trick, as with all marketing, is to consider your target. Who is it? What do you want them to do? What are their barriers to support? What do you need to say (and how) to get them to do what you want them to do? In this case, the target (judging by the media selection and brand partner) are upscale, fashion-forward women, who are not reading Bazaar for the social service articles but for the mental escape the editorial provides. The imagery of these ads–extremely small portions and stick thin people–could just as easily suggest an eating disorder as starvation that comes from political chaos. And that’s the beauty of the campaign. It resonates with common knowledge and perhaps experience these readers know well. It compels their attention and surprises them with information they may not know. And motivates them to act. We’ve all seen starving children and our eyes glaze over. This puts it in a metaphor that you can’t avoid. For well off Westerners reading these pubs, I think it’s great. Bravo to the team.

  • Nancy Schwartz

    Thanks for sharing your perspective, Susan.
    You definitely hit all the key elements of campaign development and yes, the values match is vital. But I’d rather see a beautiful child, bursting with life thanks to being well nourished. Not sure anorexia will resonate as well as that image. What do you think?

    Also, you’re so right about the surprise element – the unexpected does engage.

  • Hi Nancy — I can’t disagree with any of your points, which I found quite insightful. I thought the ads were striking enough to make me at least read them. But as you say, will they spur people to action? I also am curious about how well these adds do for the non-profit — will be eager to see what you find out.

  • Jerry Yoshitomi

    Great blog post. I think the two images are great, but the call to action is weak. I encourage people to use strong images when seeking funds.

    I was recently introduced to http://photophilanthropy.org/

  • Nancy Schwartz

    Images are key, Jerry, and powerful when relevant. Otherwise — as I see it — just eye candy and a real distraction.

  • Great post Nancy. I own a small design and branding agency focused on working with and helping nonprofits. Although there are basic fundamentals that are true for marketing both a nonprofit and a for-profit organization, there are also some major differences to consider. I feel that often times agencies that traditionally focus on for-profit clients simply don’t understand how to turn the knob on the marketing dial to create a successful campaign for a nonprofit. And your post highlights an excellent example of this.

    What drives an audience to buy the latest fashion or choose a burger joint, is not the same as what pushes a viewer to give to a cause. And when an agency simply applies their usual tactics for an ‘attention-getting’ campaign to an organization such as AAH without thinking it through, it falls short. I am very curious to see what response these ads get.

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