Is Charity Advertising Moral Offsetting For The Amoral?

Picture the scene: an eager account person enters your office (for the purposes of this theoretical situation you have to pretend to be an advertising creative) with a smile on his face. “Hey guys,” he says, like the prick he is, “got a cracker for you. Your favourite charity wants to do a huge multimedia campaign and the brief is yours.”

So what’s your first thought: ‘Wow! An opportunity to do some real good.’

Or: ‘Wow! An opportunity to do some real good ads’?

As there’s no such thing as altruism, I’d bet that if most of you were being honest, you’d admit that the second choice was your first thought, and even if it wasn’t, it definitely followed close behind.

Charity advertising is a strange anomaly in the capitalist steamroller that is advertising, but the attractions are obvious:

1. Ease. You don’t really have to get people on your side in the same way that you do with Persil Automatic. Do you care about starving Africans? Devastated Rainforests? Agonised kittens? Of course you do! And so does everyone else. It’s like trying to persuade people that orange is orange. Piece of piss.

2. Awards. Over the years, award schemes have tried to separate charity from ‘other’, but all that does is make your competition even smaller. You don’t have to go up against Nike and VW; you only have to beat the other charity ads.

3. Feeling darned good about yourself. Over the last few years, I’ve proudly worked on Samaritans. It’s great to help out suicidal people from the comfort of your own desk, especially when some of them actually write to the charity to say that the ads have made them feel better. But, again, there’s no such thing as altruism: because they feel good, I feel good.

4. Telling everyone how lovely you are. Do you see what I did in the last paragraph? I told you that I’m as lovely as a puppy wrapped up in a duvet full of kittens and it was all in disguise. Clever, eh? You can even whine about your working day and the boneheaded clients you had to deal with, but all the while you’re actually saying, ‘Look how nice I am. I do nice things for disadvantaged people (and animals when the situation arises), so I’m not quite the complete and utter advertising arsehole you think I am.’

This self-interested loveliness was summed up by a story I heard from an agency that had recently taken on the account of a really good and worthy charity. The team who were assigned to work on the account gathered together in a meeting room to discuss how they were going to work on it. Before anyone else spoke, the Creative Director said that he didn’t want to hear the word ‘awards’ mentioned anywhere near this campaign. Murmurs of agreement confirmed that this was the right and noble way to address the job. Cut to a few months later and all the ads have been entered into all the awards. The original point appears to be that the CD didn’t want to deliberately produce award-winning advertising, but dammit if the agency weren’t going to get their slice of the kudos pie. They did a lot of great work for charidee, but they didn’t like to talk about it. Much.

In the end, it’s difficult to argue against any kind of publicity for a worthy cause, no matter what the motives, but let’s not kid ourselves that those motives are 100% pure.

If we really, really, really cared about the charities we do ads for, we’d leave advertising and go and work for them.

Any volunteers?

By the way, in the interests of moral offsetting, here’s the best TED talk I’ve seen: