St John Ambulance eschews shock ads for ‘reassuring’ education message

St John Ambulance is shifting its marketing focus away from hard-hitting ads to promote an education message as it looks to improve people’s knowledge of first aid.

The campaign, created by BBH, uses animation and a quartet of famous voices – David Mitchell, Sir John Hurt, Johnny Vegas and David Walliams – to educate parents on how to save their baby from choking. It first airs on TV tonight (12 January).

The push comes on the back of research conducted by the charity which found that while 60% of parents cite their baby choking as a major fear, four-fifths (79%) would not know what to do if the situation arose.

Speaking to Marketing Week, St John Ambulance’s director of brand marketing, communications and fundraising Steve Conway said the aim of the campaign was to “directly educate” people about first aid at the point of contact with the ad.

“We have shifted away from our hard-hitting tone. It was important in the past that we had hard-hitting campaigns – we wanted to put first aid on the map and for people to think first aid is important and can save lives.

“However, in the past those ads required people to take an extra step to learn how to do first aid – they had to visit our website or download the app. This campaign aims to demonstrate and reassure at the point of contact,” he added.

Ad controversy

St John Ambulance’s marketing has been criticised in the past for being “offensive and distressing”. In 2012 the Advertising Standards Authority received almost 150 complaints about an ad that showed a man choking to death, although it escaped censure.

In 2013 it had an ad banned for a “misleading” claim that first aid could help prevent up to 140,000 deaths a year.

Conway admits that the ads were seen as quite controversial but says they played a vital role in increasing understanding of the importance of first aid. He said the charity has been made aware of four lives that were saved because of the 2012 campaign.

While he didn’t rule out returning to that strategy in future, Conway said this year will be about celebrating success stories and educating people on first aid “in a more direct way”, with the charity hoping the impact will come not through shock but the use of animation and celebrity voices.

Spreading the message about first aid

While the new ad includes direct instructions on how parents can use first aid on babies, St John Ambulance hopes its will prove interesting enough for people to share on social media. The ad includes a direct call-to-action for people to post the video on their own social media channels or send it to friends.

The hope is that it will encourage people to find out more about first aid, said Conway, and convince them to go online and look at other videos or download the charity’s first aid app.

“The key message is to demonstrate how to save a choking baby. We want people to watch the film but also to share it with as wide an audience as possible. A secondary aim is to pique people’s interest in first aid – to grab their attention and explain the importance of first aid through an education message so they go on to learn more,” he added.

While St John Ambulance has “slightly” increased its marketing budget for this campaign compared to previous years, Conway said it still has to make “every penny work for us” hence the call to share. The ad has also appeared online first, a move aimed at creating buzz around the ad that the charity and its supporters can then build on.

“The digital aspect is really important. Getting our audiences to leverage the campaign on our behalf is the key to success,” he said.


St John Ambulance

St John Ambulance ad escapes ban

Russell Parsons

A controversial St John Ambulance television advertisement showing a man choking to death has avoided censure despite attracting almost 150 complaints that it is “offensive and distressing”.


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