Shock And Awe

Some things you just can’t make sexy – no matter how hard you try. Save the Children hired a dozen models to try make things like diarrhea, pneumonia and malaria sexy but it just didn’t work. The buffed and beautiful models thought they were selling a sexy brand and sell they did, saying things like, “Lust is my mistress.”

The director implored them to “keep it sexy and really pour it on this time.” The vacant stare and blank expression makes sense when you realize their next cue card was: “Almost 800 mothers and 18,000 young children die each day, mostly from preventable diseases.”

“You want me to say that’s sexy?”

“It’s strange saying that like this.”

“This is not a sexy statement. I feel bad.”

“It’s just hard to make some of these words sound sexy.”

“S**t, what’s up?”

Less than a month after its release around Mother’s Day, The Most Important ‘Sexy’ Model Video Ever by Save the Children eclipsed 3 million views on YouTube. The Westport, Conn.-based charity developed the campaign with the help of two filmmakers from CollegeHumor.com to ramp up exposure for its 15th annual State of the World’s Mothers report (#SOWM). The report focuses on the best and worst places to be a mom.

“It’s an important issue but it’s not a sexy issue, meaning it’s not catching people’s attention,” said Save the Children President & CEO Carolyn Miles.

“This year, we have had more downloads of the report, but also much more coverage of the report itself, and in many, many more countries,” Miles said. “I’m not sure the video did all that obviously, but it did get some of the basic issues and statistics out there,” she said.

“It was not a fundraising driven thing by any stretch. It’s the shares and click-throughs,” Miles said. And while the sharing has been good, the challenge is always whether they can get people do something once they’ve captured their attention. At the end of the video, viewers had three options: share the video, go to Save the Children’s website or make a donation.

The overall goal was to get people’s attention and provoke a conversation, measuring in three ways: the number of views, the ratio of positive to negative sentiments (likes/dislikes), and the number of comments per 100,000 views. It’s the most viewed video that Save the Children has hosted in the U.S. and second all time for all national members of Save the Children. It exceeded the goal of 80 percent positive sentiment ratio as well as the target ratio of volume of comments per view on YouTube and third-party sites, like Facebook, Buzzfeed and Upworthy.

Some people internally didn’t like it, according to Miles, but not to the point where it would be damaging to the organization or the cause. “Honestly, when you take a chance – and this was definitely a chance – you have to be ready for some people to not like something,” she said.

What made the “sexy” campaign work was the reaction of the models. “It’s their true actual reactions. You can’t get genuine reactions in a script. The reason it worked was that the models didn’t know what it was for when they came,” Miles said.

Josh Ruben and Vince Peone of CollegeHumor.com directed the video, their first collaboration with Save the Children. The two met a representative from Save the Children during the 2013 South By Southwest festival in Austin, Texas.

“This one had to be the good one, better than anything we’ve done,” said Peone, especially because Save the Children’s last video “really raised the bar,” launching on the three-year anniversary of the Syrian crisis in March and quickly garnering 30 million views. The two filmmakers hope to continue to garner more views of the video. “We know that 50 million people care about some of the crass, crappy comedy we’ve made,” said Ruben.

The directors, as well as the production company, Big Block Live, worked pro bono but the actors were paid to keep up the ruse. After the fact, though, Peone said they received calls from the models wanting to donate their paychecks.

“We wanted to present it to the audience as the model experienced it, like a shocking reveal. The visceral, human emotions, and their responses were relatable. That discomfort, sometimes people don’t want to see hard-hitting facts on the Internet,” said Peone. “The best videos make people feel things, not necessarily make them feel great. You have to make them feel something,” said Peone.

“For something to really hit you, they have to make you feel something. The best videos hit like a sledgehammer,” said Ruben. Make people feel something in order for them to share it.

Peggy Conlon, president and CEO of The Ad Council in New York City, doesn’t think charities risk losing people through “edgy” public service announcements (PSAs) and campaigns because they’ve already committed to the organization. “Whatever the issue is, people who are already stepping up, donating, volunteering, are not going to be turned off,” she said.

“Usually when people understand the mission of an organization, through those kinds of social campaigns, it has a positive impact on their fundraising. People tend to give money to organizations that they understand and value,” Conlon said, describing it as a borrowed effect, or lift.

Nonprofits should aim for what Conlon describes as the “trifecta” of raising awareness among people, raising their trust and developing the willingness to donate.

To have the biggest impact and have a campaign survive over time, Conlon said, “You really need to surround that idea with all the executions that you can possibly think of, across all the media platforms. If it’s a great piece of video, you want to get it not just online but on air, on phones, outdoor billboards.”

Anti-smoking and tobacco campaigns are most likely to be found going for the “shock factor” in their ads, according to Conlon. There are personal barriers people put up for excuses and reasons they smoke, she said, that requires extreme measures, making for PSAs that have featured a man talking with a hole in his throat or a woman who’s lost her fingers.

The reason some anti-smoking ads are able to go as far as they do is because they are paid ads rather than donated PSAs. “I don’t think they would get that much exposure if they were donated media,” Conlon said, because it makes television stations uncomfortable. “That’s the balance that media companies have to make: take revenue and risk losing the viewer. Some do it for the right reason,” she said.

One recent anti-smoking campaign was criticized but not because the video was disturbing. In the ad, a mother is separated from her child at a train station and when the boy realizes he can’t find his mother, begins crying. The ad was meant to convey what it’s like if a parent was to die from smoking-related illness and not be there for their child. The ad, however, used a real child as opposed to an actor, leading some to say that it was unnecessarily cruel to put him through that trauma.

When Nurture Calls features posters of young mothers breastfeeding in bathroom stalls, with headlines like: “Bon appétit,” “Private dining,” and “Table for two.” A paragraph explaining the campaign follows, with the opening, “Would you eat here?”

When Nurture Calls riled up some users of social media, with complaints ranging from breastfeeding in public to simply the ages of the women featured in the campaign, who were actual mothers and not actors, garnering media attention from the Daily News and other outlets.

One of the women featured in the ads chimed in on the social media conversation via Facebook, conceding that she might be a young mother but also bemoaning the inappropriate and sexual comments received on the social network. Most comments, however, seemed to support mothers and their right to respectfully breastfeed in public.

To Conlon, enabling people to start a public dialogue via social media is fabulous. People who did the work don’t really have to jump in, the community self-corrects to an extent, she said, adding that if someone says something outrageous, others jump in. “I love to watch these threads develop because it’s really a community that is very engaged and not top down. It’s really, what it is, is a community,” Conlon said. “What social media provides is transparency, which is so valuable today,” she said.

“People can comment and know that their voice is being heard in the discussion. I think that’s very healthy around social issues like this,” Conlon said.

The “Nurture” campaign isn’t even for a particular charity or organization. It was developed by University of North Texas students Kris Haro and Johnathan Wenske as part of a class project. The website, launched in May, grew out of the project to help understand the initiative behind the campaign. Aimed to gather support for protecting a mother’s right to breastfeed in public “by creating atmosphere where they feel comfortable enough to do what they do best — nurture.”

“By law, breastfeeding mothers are not protected from harassment and refusal of service in public, often forcing them to feed in secluded spaces such as public bathrooms,” according to the website, which urges support for House Bill 1706. Originally introduced in 2013, but expected to be re-introduced in January, the measure would expand state provisions to legally protect women from harassment when they breastfeed in public.

The two are also developing a Breast Friends app, specifically for breastfeeding mothers, which allows moms to search nearby for restaurants and other places that “support breastfeeding mothers and have a friendly attitude towards it.”

For nonprofit managers planning a campaign or ad, Conlon had three suggestions:

  • Understand exactly who the target audience is;
  • Set very measurable goals. Decide exactly what you’ll be measuring that will have the biggest impact on the societal issue you’re addressing; and,
  • When you develop the creative, test it. Expose it to people in your target audience. “Sometimes we find that you can be too finger wagging, or too serious.”

Miles imparted two lessons from Save the Children’s process. “Let your team take risks and let them explore,” she said. When she first saw the idea and script for the sexy campaign, Miles’ first reaction was: “Yeesh, I’m not sure this is going to work.” In this case, though, it was in the execution, not the scripting.

The second lesson, according to Miles: “Once you see something taking off, one of the things we did was shared it with a lot of people who could share it from there. Things do go viral on their own but you have to be sharing.” NPT