Oxfam’s press ads from the 1950s and 60s

Exhibited by
Maxine Delahunty.
September 05, 2009
Medium of Communication
Broadcast and television, press advertising
Target Audience
Awareness, individuals, single gift, social change campaign
Type of Charity
International relief /development, poverty / social justice
Country of Origin
Date of first appearance

SOFII’s view

These are the infamous ‘starving baby’ ads from the 1950s and mid 1960s. Many in the development and disaster relief industries might prefer to leave these ads languishing in obscurity but they are important historically for fundraisers on several counts. Though they seem crude and simplistic now, these ads very effectively alerted the post-war British public to considerable humanitarian needs abroad. They helped to build Oxfam, still one of the great international development organisations fighting poverty around the world. And they are brilliant examples of the direct marketer’s art.

Two recent additions to this historic exhibit (see below) show unusual format Oxfam press advertisements also from the 1960s, prepared specially for The Guardian newspaper in the UK. The left-hand ad looks like a single column editorial-style story. Bold and direct, it adds credibility and authenticity and also bravely states Oxfam’s commitment then to make poverty history. The right-hand ad – and we imagine that each of these appeared on the opposite fore-edge of a facing double page spread – is the call to action, and despite the absence of a coupon, a powerful call it is too. There’s no reason why something like this couldn’t be tested today. It might well work very well.

Creator / originator

Harold Sumption and others.

Summary / objectives

To recruit new donors and raise money off the page.


If you can help supply details for this exhibit please contact SOFII.

Special characteristics

Showing all the ingredients of effective direct marketing promotion, these ads may well have been modelled on the highly effective promotions of The Reader’s Digest and similar direct marketers.

Influence / impact

These ads established the efficacy of press advertising and set the standard for fundraising press advertising by charities.


N/A but for sure, as Harold Sumption was involved, they would have been rigorously tested.


These ads consistently raised several times their cost whenever they appeared and helped Oxfam build a solid supporter base that quickly took it to the very top of the charity league tables in the UK.


Because these ads are very effective, they worked and they were forerunners of almost all charity advertising since then.

Other relevant information

Harold Sumption, creator of these advertisements, went on to become the founder of The International Fundraising Congress in Holland and the Resource Alliance.

SOFII enthusiast George Smith worked with Harold Sumption on the Oxfam account at this time. He has sent us the following comment, to update this exhibit.

‘The two old Oxfam ads above, top, are actually about ten years apart - the first is indeed mid-fifties (note the emphasis on Europe). But the second - the Pledged Gifts ad- is about 1964. Note the quasi-editorial running down the side and the case-histories of real-life PG collectors, two techniques which might well work today. Note, too, that this is a whole page in the Daily Mirror which would have been targeted to perform at three-to-one. As was everything then. Happy days! ’