By all accounts, Smile Train, which is dedicated to treating children suffering from cleft lips and palates, is a very honorable and well-run charity. It seems to me, however, that this organization could be even more successful if they took a different approach to their advertising.
For the past year or two, it has been rare to pick up a magazine without seeing a Smile Train ad with one or more heartbreaking–and painfully graphic–photos of third world children afflicted with cleft lips or palates. From a purely marketing standpoint, I think there are two problems with this approach. First, the photos are, quite frankly, very difficult to look at. In fact, I suspect that many readers quickly turn the page to avoid confronting them. Second, if you do look at the photos, the children’s conditions are so severe that it makes you wonder if anything can be done to meaningfully improve things.
In my view, Smile Train should use the tried-and-true “before and after” approach to show prospective donors just what an impact their contributions can have. I say this not just based on intuition; rather, it’s based on a conversation I had with an executive with Children’s Miracle Network when I was VP of Marketing for CMN sponsor Dial Corp in the early 1990s. At the time, CMN was raising almost twice as much money from its annual telethon as was being raised by the better-known Jerry Lewis Labor Day Telethon. The organizers of CMN firmly believed that a big reason for their superior fund-raising record was the fact that while Jerry Lewis’s approach was to generate sympathy by parading his sick kids in front the the cameras, CMN chose to showcase “success stories.” These stories generally took the form of videos that started by showing a child just after he or she was stricken with a devastating and seemingly hopeless illness or accident and ended by showing the same child in a much-improved and often completely healthy state following treatment at a CMN-affiliated hospital.
In other words, if you want someone to donate to your cause–or buy your product or service–don’t just show the problem; show the solution as well. That’s a rule that makes sense for any marketer, and that I don’t know why it wouldn’t make sense for Smile Train as well.
In fact, when your name is Smile Train, doesn’t it make sense to have your ads show a smiling passenger?