The ugly truth: why we have an ethical responsibility to shock

Joe Nicholson By Joe Nicholson

Shocking, isn’t it?

Disbelief, outrage, disgust. They get people talking. And in the age of social media, we’re encouraged to feel this way more than ever – a sinister reality laid bare by Jaron Lanier, the reformed Silicon Valley developer, in his bestselling Ten Arguments For Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now.

Negative emotions make people respond more than anything – so shocking us is the modus operandi of the social media giants and media alike, for that’s where the money lies.

Is it time for the charity sector – with its own distinguished history of shock-tactic advertising – to abandon this approach?

The thing is, it works. At least, in the short term. The British Heart Foundation’s fat-clogged cigarette ad moved 14,000 people to quit; Harrison’s Fund’s ‘I Wish My Son Had Cancer’ campaign raised hundreds of thousands of pounds.

BHF clogged artery campaign

But we’re measuring success here by acquisition, awareness-raising, publicity, buzz. By the ability to generate an immediate reaction – not sustain a long-term relationship, which grows out of positivity, trust, and conversation with supporters.

And then there’s the ethics of representation. Shocking marketing might make the donations pour in – but where does this compromise a charity’s mission?

Think the abject photos of poverty that are still wheeled out in many international development campaigns – which eventually compound fatigue in people who were once moved to act.

But sometimes, using the power of shock can be the most responsible way to tell a story. It’s a test we use at Consider: do we have a responsibility to tell the truth to supporters, no matter how confrontational it might be?

The classic Amnesty International UK press ads, written by master copywriter Indra Sinha in the 1980s, attest to this: they bear witness to the truth, holding nothing back, and make a simple ask – and they performed exceptionally.

This principle need not be restricted to human rights causes. For charities working in medical care, UK poverty, climate change – it still applies. The point is, hope isn’t enough for fundraising and campaigning – powerful messages confront people with a wrong, then give them the power to help make it right.  

For sure, telling stories full of aspiration and positivity is so important to building relationships, and growing movements for the long term. But we shouldn’t cushion people from every shocking fact, nor be afraid of telling the truth about injustices that remain ignored.

Sometimes, it’s just too important not to.

What do you think? Catch up with the debate at Third Sector magazine – including views from Consider’s own Client Strategy Director, Ian Boardman.

Joe Nicholson

Joe Nicholson

Head of Copy

Joe’s a big thinker who understands the power of words. As Head of Copy, he combines consistent creative magic with cross-channel expertise and rock-solid strategic thinking. Joe’s an experienced fundraiser, who also serves as a Trustee for homelessness charity, Housing Justice – you can read more about him here