I read an article recently in Third Sector magazine debating whether new advertising codes, due to come into force later this year, are a good or bad idea. The codes will allow charities to use comparisons in their ads, and will bring charity advertising in line with commercial advertising.

Is this a good idea?

From a marketing perspective it could be fun. A bit of controversy would certainly spark debate and focus attention on charities. But that attention probably wouldn’t be positive. The public expects Tesco and ASDA to indulge in tit-for-tat comparisons. But if Barnado’s and the NSPCC were to do the same, it could run the risk of damaging public confidence in charities.

Another downside is that comparisons might encourage an even greater focus on charities’ administrative overheads and fundraising costs—neither of which tell you much about what a charity is achieving. (I like the analogy that our chief exec Martin Brookes uses—focusing on charity overhead costs is like investors deciding not to buy shares in Apple because Steve Jobs’ office costs too much to run. See also, this comment by former Bristol Uni Prof, Adrian Sargeant on how misleading admin costs can be.)

On the other hand, if a charity was able to point to the impact it has created vs. the impact created by a peer (or perhaps vs. the industry standard) that would be a positive thing. It would help to focus people’s attention on the things that matter, arm donors with useful information and might also encourage charities to up their game.

Whether advertising creatives and the charities they work for could come with enough information on charities’ results to make these comparisons is another question.

* For non-UK readers: this is a reference to a market comparison website and it’s advertising campaign featuring a cute meerkat.

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