What makes a nonprofit ad stupid?

Pointing out stupid nonprofit ads tends to generate a lot of controversy. More than one commentator has correctly pointed out that I don’t have the response data on these ads, and quite rightly asked how I can label them ‘stupid’ when I don’t know whether they actually worked. If they were successful, then calling them stupid would just be, well, stupid.

Written by
Jeff Brooks
May 14, 2012

So, I am going out on a limb when I call these things stupid. And I could be wrong, it has happened many times.

But in this case of the ads featured in this showcase, I’m pretty confident that I’m right. These ads are stupid, and their stupidity will prevent them from raising funds.

I’ve been in the fundraising business a long time. I’ve seen thousands of projects from the inside and every time a project has used cleverness and abstraction as a platform, it has failed. And I’m not talking about a slight underperformance, but spectacular and utter failure.

There is a lot of uncertainty in fundraising. Things that should work sometimes don’t and vice versa. Often, we can’t find a reason to explain success or failure. But the ads that I will highlight in this SOFII showcase are different. Not only do they look like they are going to crash and burn, they fail absolutely, every time.

There are a lot of ways that fundraising can be bad. It can be laden with jargon; it can be self-centred, vague, poorly written and shoddily designed. All of these things can cause it to perform badly and waste money. But these things won’t get the ‘stupid nonprofit ad’ label from me. I am aiming at a certain class of badness in nonprofit advertising. I’m going to highlight the abstract, glib, usually agency-created sludge that just never seems to go away because ad agencies are good at selling what they do (even when they aren’t actually good at doing it).

I’m on the warpath against this stuff not because I hate it (I mostly don’t) but because it’s a scourge to fundraising and it needs to be called out for the scam it is. Maybe we can even save organisations from falling victim to it in the future.

Enjoy the showcase.

Jeff Brooks

PS If any of you have insider knowledge of any campaign that I mention and can show me that it isn’t actually stupid, I promise I will retract what I’ve said about it.

And if you have any nominations for the stupid nonprofit ads showcase then send them my way.

About the author: Jeff Brooks

Jeff Brooks

Jeff Brooks has served the nonprofit community for more than 30 years, working as a writer and creative director on behalf of a variety of organisations including CARE, World Vision, Feeding America, St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, National Wildlife Federation, and many more. He blogs at Future Fundraising Now and Moceanic. In previous careers, he’s been an English teacher and a classical musician. He lives in Seattle in the USA.

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