Charities should be allowed to stretch the regulatory boundaries

Brands using unaddressed mail as a marketing tool face a huge challenge. How to overcome what is the natural inclination of the majority: to dismiss and dispense in the bin.

Russell Parsons

Mailers need, therefore, to stretch their creative and copy-writing wings to arrest a prospect and avoid being filed (hopefully) for recycling. Charities in particular have to stand out in what can sometimes seem like an avalanche of worthwhile but competing stories.

This in mind, the ever imaginative Cancer Research employed a brave and rather bold tactic in a campaign last year. Instead of the standard anonymous addressee on the unbranded mailing it instead read: “it doesn’t matter to me who you are”.

Inside, the rather sinister yet intriguing tone continued in a letter written, if you can suspend belief for a moment, by cancer personified. The letter spoke of how “scientists are outsmarting me” and Cancer Research was “threatening me the most”. A donation leaflet and standard business reply service baring the Cancer Research name accompanied the letter.

Sound innovative? The perfect way to get people to linger longer? Not according to those that complained to the Advertising Standards Authority the mailing was threatening and not explicitly a marketing communication.

Worst news than having people take issue with a campaign brimming with honourable intention, the ASA decided the campaign’s tone could distress and broke ad codes by not declaring itself marketing material.

It is easy to pick faults with this conclusion. Taken in its entirety, the mail was identifiable as one soliciting funds – the letter referred to Cancer Research and the envelope’s reverse identified the charity.

Ignoring the claims of a precious few who felt “threatened” by the approach, the most important outcome of the ruling is it disarms the charity of what it needs to compete for ever diminishing disposable income – the ability to grab attention.

The Charities Aid Foundation recently announced donations fell 20 per cent to £9.3bn in real terms during 2011/12, down from £11bn the previous year, the largest fall in giving in the survey’s eight-year history.

This in mind, charity marketers should be allowed flexibility in their use of direct mail, a key marketing channel in a charity marketers’ armoury. This is not advocation of a free-for-all but a call for leniency when the ultimate goal of the advertiser is as important as that of Cancer Research.

Such evocative tactics as those used in the offending campaign perfectly encapsulate the horror of the disease, the work being done to counter it and the part recipients play. It also provides a perfect companion – good cop bad cop if you like – to the sponsored runs and other less pointed donation and information drives.

The third sector is looking to grow in the face of mounting odds. They should be allowed to push the boundaries.

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