Monthly Archives: October 2015

Shocking images!

At the end of the summer, the Independent took the controversial decision to publish a photo a dead child washed up on a Mediterranean beach, in order to bring home the severity of the refugee and migrant crisis in Europe.

The photo was utterly devastating. In a single shot, the horror of the crisis crashed into Britain’s living rooms – and people responded by taking their old belongings to collection centres, donating to charities supporting the crisis, and pressuring the government to do more about the on-going crisis.

Working in charity fundraising, we often come across the issue of ‘how far do we go?’ Do we show the wounds, the dead bodies, and the dead children? Do such graphic images exploit the dead, and their families? Or should we try and balance the graphic and horrifying, with the hopeful – with the solution?

The answer, as ever, is somewhere in the middle and depends on context. Of course, sometimes a horrifying and graphic image is needed to stop people turning away from the scale of an awful issue, such as the refugee crisis. On other occasions, showing a positive and motivating image gives people a sense of hope that their donation or action can make a difference.

The main downfall of using horrifying images is that they can dehumanise the victim. One example I always use is how a local group protesting coverage of a recent war held up placards showing images of children that were blown to bits. The children were unidentifiable – a mess of body parts. The images were entirely dehumanising. Rather than encouraging empathy, it felt as though the images robbed the victims of war of their humanity. It felt exploitative – as though it didn’t matter who the children had been; all that mattered was their grim end. I thought about the parents of those children – would they have wanted their children to be used in this way? Would they have wanted their children to be remembered as a body part, not as a full human being who had their life taken away from them?

Where the Independent succeeded is that the image of Aylan did not dehumanise him. In fact, the opposite was true. We saw the photo, and we saw the child he was. We learnt his name. We listened to his story. We saw the face of his desperate father and mother. He wasn’t a symbol, or an object, to rally a cause. He was a child who had lost his life in a desperate and deeply horrifying situation.

To me, that is where the balance has to lie when choosing graphic images. Is the image exploitative? Is it forgetting the humanity and the life of the person in it? Is it horrifying for horror’s sake, or is it trying to bring an issue to life? Will it make an audience turn away and disengage, or will it engage with our empathy and our sense of fairness?

When we are trying to expose the horror of something like the refugee crisis, or the murders of civilian children in a warzone, it is tempting to reach for the most graphic, most horrific picture. But if that image merely serves to dehumanise and re-victimise, it won’t serve its purpose.

There’s no such thing as digital marketing

I’ve been to a number of digital conferences over the last few years. And whilst the technology in that time has changed dramatically – along with the dazzling array of buzz-words and acronyms that accompany it – one underlying theme has remained 100% consistent throughout.

To succeed in the digital world, the most important thing you have to know does not concern Drupal vs WordPress or Maxymiser vs Optimizely. In fact it has nothing to do with new technology at all but has everything to do with old knowledge – knowledge that was developed in that far away offline world before the internet was even dreamt of. Because what you have to understand is good old advertising and marketing practice.

And this applies whatever your market, whatever your business model. Whether you’re selling automotive, launching a new product or raising funds for your charity, nothing has changed in the last 20 years except the technology.

It’s true, of course, that the technology has given us some new ways to do the same old things. Just as a car can get you from London to Bristol quicker than a horse and cart, social media can build brand friendly communities quicker than a membership club (and sometimes lose them quicker too). But just as travel is still travel, so advertising is still advertising, fundraising is still fundraising – whatever your medium.

And yet, even though this has been the consistent out-take from every conference I’ve attended over the last decade, it’s a sub-text which many of the speakers themselves are simply not aware of. And why should they be? Many are too young to have worked in (or perhaps even to remember) a pre-digital environment. What’s more, they may well have come into the business from a technological rather than a marketing background. As a result, they learn marketing as they go along and it’s entirely understandable that in the process they imagine they have discovered something new.

What’s more, the idea that the whole world changed with the discovery of the internet and that the entire marketing manual had to be rewritten with the advent of Web 2.0, has been pedaled from the outset. I remember attending a DMA run conference almost ten years ago at which speaker after speaker insisted that digital marketing was ‘not about the technology’. Whereas in fact, of course, that’s exactly what it was about then, is about now and will always be about.

Anyone who has ever done any teaching, training or lecturing will know it can be a great pleasure to see bright young minds grasping a concept for the first time. Suddenly the discoveries that were passed on to you long ago and that you now wish to pass on in turn, will appear to them as if fresh minted. For older ad men like me, there’s a similar pleasure to be had watching, listening and talking to many of the speakers and delegates at digital conferences. But it’s a pleasure that would be seriously undermined if they were learning those lessons and discovering those principles not in a conference room, but on one of my live jobs – on my time and on my budget.

Which is why the ultimate conclusion I have come to after all those conferences and conversations is this. When choosing the team you are going to work with on your next ‘digital’ campaign or appeal, don’t ask, ‘Do they know digital?’ Ask, ‘Do they know marketing?’

NH