5 Ad Council-Inspired Lessons for Nonprofits on Communicating Serious Subjects

McGruffby Christipher Streeter, chriskstreeter.com

If you grew up in America you are probably pretty familiar with the work of the Ad Council. By now, you know that “only you can prevent forest fires”; that “loose lips sink ships”; and that you should “take a bite out of crime.”  They tackle the heavy stuff; the big issues that affect us all. These oftentimes life-and-death issues though tend to travel under the radar, requiring a well-crafted message to grab our collective attention.
Enter the work of the advertising agencies that partner with the Ad Council. Even though the agencies change, there is a consistent voice and communication style across the campaigns. Using the Ad Council as a guide, here are five tips that you can use in communicating your organization’s somber and difficult messages.

Slam the Behavior Not the Person

When dealing with issues of grave importance, it can be easy to focus on the negative. “This group of people is doing something bad to this group of people, and they must be stopped”. Or, “that thing you enjoy is killing you and hurting your family”, but in most cases, your message can be communicated with just as much passion by coming solely after the behavior, and not attacking the individuals who act out that behavior.

Take a look at the Ad Council’s campaign for Gay and Lesbian Bullying Prevention. These ads feature a group of teenagers talking and using the word “gay” as a fill-in for negative words. In a great effort to show these teenagers their faulty behavior, comedian Wanda Sykes completely calls out the teenagers. She explains to them why what they are doing is wrong and then turns the conversation back on them, using an example of a word that describes them in a sentence to fill-in for a negative thing. The compassionate but stern response from Wanda is the model for appropriately slamming the behavior but not the person. Show your audience their missteps, but leave them an open door to change their ways and become an advocate for your cause.
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Check out this local OKC example from the Tobacco Settlement Endowment Trust. They focus on the aspects of a smoker’s life they enjoy that can be taken away from them due to smoking- attacking the behavior of smoking and not the smoker.

Use Humor Not a Heavy Hand

The Gay and Lesbian Bullying Prevention commercial with Wanda Sykes also serves as a great example for using humor and not a heavy hand. Engage your audience. Make them feel comfortable enough to listen, but stirred up enough to change. Many of the Ad Council campaigns involve some level of humor. Take a look at their Reckless Driving Prevention campaign “Speak Up or Else.". Again, they tabbed a well-known comedian; this time to portray a teenager riding with their friends while the driver was being reckless. By using humor instead of a lot of finger waving, the ad was able to show just how ridiculous it is to be in a situation like that and to not speak up. Humor disarms.

Find a Few Dance Partners

The Ad Council never goes it alone. They always find a few subject matter experts. Whether working with the AARP (American Association of Retired Persons) for their campaign on caregiving for an older parent, or working with AAA (American Automobile Association), SADD (Students Against Destructive Decisions) and other safety groups for their Reckless Driving Prevention Campaign, the Ad Council connects with groups who are already working towards the same goals as their campaign. These subject matter experts can be great sources of content, add instant credibility to your campaign, and can help spread your campaign’s reach by connecting you to those groups’ audiences.
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Be Action Packed

Once you’ve gotten their attention and they are willing to be an advocate for your cause, what avenues do you offer for your audience to get involved? In many Ad Council campaigns, we see a mix of online and offline opportunities to get involved as well as a mix of quick and longer-term involvement opportunities. For getting involved online, the Ad Council offers the ability to send an e-card to a friend, sign a pledge, or even connect with some of the Ad Council’s partners for more topical information.
As it relates to offline activities, they have offered ideas and materials for group initiatives, downloadable checklists, and event ideas. There is no one-size-fits-all response for every campaign or for every person. The best thing is to make sure that you include online and offline tools as well as a wide range of time and effort commitments.

Don’t Overplay the Stats and Numbers

How well can you tell the story of your cause? If you could only put one number in your presentation or video about your cause, could you still communicate it clearly? A message full of numbers can get easily lost. It will oftentimes sound just like ten other presentations your audience has heard for other causes that groups tried to get them to care about. What’s more memorable: “Only you can prevent forest fires” or “There are 30,000 forest fires a month in the U.S., in 20 states, with 15% caused by cigarettes, and blah blah blah”? While the Ad Council does use statistics and numbers, they are never the focus.
Locally, the Oklahoma City YWCA’s “1 in 4” domestic violence campaign is a great example of subtly using numbers while creating a powerful emotional appeal. They masterfully drive home their message with just one statistic.

Make your message personal to your audience. Tell them what their role is to play.
What communications techniques have you seen be successful (or unsuccessful) in communicating serious subject matter?