Charity Advertising: the line between “emotional punch” and uninvited assault.

A young boy visited by his emotional father in school, then called out of his class to be told – while we watch – that his father has died. A final image shows a British Heart Foundation logo and tells us that heart disease is a major cause of death in the UK.
This is the premise of a UK advert which has been showing in cinemas and on TV.
I recently saw the advert before a cinema screening of Man from UNCLE. The showing had a total of two adverts and two trailers about terminal illness, but for myself and my partner there was something more intimate, even violating and manipulative, about the British Heart Foundation advert.
The campaign is described by the British Heart Foundation as an “emotional punch” and was accompanied by a mobile phone app which makes an unexpected call to the app user explaining that the real pain of a heart attack is being told that a loved one has died.
The fact that disease and terminal illness can lead to the scene played out in the advert itself may well be something many of us don’t want to be reminded of uninvited with a big screen reconstruction.  This could, then, be especially true for anyone who has been the child shown or has been the other parent, surely accounting for a large number of viewers.
A look on the British Heart Foundation Facebook page shows a steady stream of posters both supporting and expressing concerns about the advert.
One parent – and I’ll be honest that I would be furious this had been my child – said his young daughter had seen the advert. “My wife had to then explain to her that I won’t be dying and I won’t be visiting her at school to tell her to look after her mum”. The Facebook poster adds “please think before you make these adverts”.
A response from British Heart Foundation tells the parent:
We do understand that it is quite hard hitting, but it wasn’t our intention to scare or worry people. The aim of the advert is to raise awareness and really show the seriousness of heart disease.
Another poster makes a more forthright complaint:
In a world where seemingly nothing is off limits to advertisers when it comes to playing on fear, tragedy and suffering, you have managed to plumb new depths with this despicable piece of work.
While there appears to be a pervading sense that ends justify means, personally I hope you are utterly ashamed of yourselves and urge you in the strongest possible terms to reconsider your revenue generating strategies (& your advertising agency) in future. Disgusting doesn’t even begin to cover it.
An earlier post from a parent complains that a child who had lost a parent had been upset by the advert, while the YouTube post of the advert also  attracts comments for and against the campaign.
For my part, I’m happy to be told I’m wrong for being among the critics of the advert, that the British Heart Foundation have made a fortune in donations and that the research will save lives.
However I can’t help thinking that the advert feels like an exercise in self-congratulatory advertising power; distant marketers flexing their ability to make us cry, rather than an empathetic conversation by the charity with the viewer.
We have all seen any number of shocking, attention-grabbing adverts before now. This is nothing new. But crucially the British Heart Foundation advert made myself, my partner and clearly others doubt the charity’s judgement and perhaps even pass by to a different collection pot next time one comes around.
And most of all, the one thought we were left with after seeing the advert wasn’t about heart disease, it was wondering how much “emotional punch” can be thrown by a charity before we feel like we are being assaulted.


  • Starviking

    A great piece. I am in total agreement.

  • whatif1984true

    To stand out in advertising shock or be original. They know which this is.
    More important is their audience. How many children saw this ad? They paid for it so they know.
    How many men the age of the father depicted will die as depicted due to heart problems (as a percentage of overall heart related deaths). They know it is their expert subject.
    They have spent a lot of money on advertising. They know its power.
    They don’t know where to draw the line.

    Statistics from USA 2.7% of deaths from cardiovascular disease are men and women under 45 years of age. So 1.35% of deaths are men under 45 yrs of age which of course is actually 0.00689% of the total population. Is this the most shocking thing about the advert. Unless of course you still believe it meets the Standard of being Honest and Truthful.

  • That’s an interesting angle on it, thank you. Ie, how much charity advertising shows the largest problem as opposed to the most lucrative version of the problem.

  • Thanks, there’s probably a bigger question for another day about how charities turning into bigger and bigger corporate-size machines has changed our attitudes towards them.

    I think I remeber the same charity – BHF – making headlines years ago for a billboard campaigning warning parents about the dangers of crisps.

  • whatif1984true

    The media hype non events and raise false fears with charities joining in it seems the end of the line. Both seek to sell themselves. Both for money.
    No such thing as bad PR. The end justifies the means. Advertising seeks to be noticed as an advert and often the actual product/service remains unnoticed. Ultimately if the advert puts money in the charity coffers then it will be repeated. The version is irrelevant, the money isn’t. The end justifies the means. BHF Chief Executive was paid £168,000 in 2014/15 year. Other benefits etc are not known. They raise £150M a year.