Blood Ties: Humor, Individualism Trump Fear


The Blood Center of Central Texas has found a novel way to refashion blood-donation campaigns, which prey on people’s guilt and fear. The solution: use humor to entice people to give it up.

Created by the Austin, Texas, agency Door Number 3, the quirky campaign still uses guilt as a motivator — but in a different way. All four 30-second TV spots offer people a way to make amends for their rude behavior by giving blood. Similar print and online banner ads accompany the effort.

The strategy is neatly fitted to the current cultural climate.

People are reacting negatively to the greed of Wall Street and are looking for small ways to do something charitable, says Suzanne Kyba, Door Number 3’s director of account services. “People don’t have a lot of money right now. Giving blood is a cost-free way to make a huge impact on your community,” she says.

This cost-free approach is a smart gamble. The eco-movement has successfully employed the same technique: reuse, renew, recycle. In both, the individual matters. The responsibility is personal; the benefits global. It’s the American can-do spirit, without alluding to cheap sentiment.

For example, in one 30-second TV spot opens, the viewer watches a man deliberately close the elevator doors as an elderly woman carrying two boxes calls out: “Hold the elevator.” The words “Redeem yourself” then appear on screen, as the announcer says: “Donate blood, save two lives, and make up for just about anything.”

In another ad, we follow a woman wheeling a grocery cart to her car. After unpacking her bags, she decides to dump the cart on the grass rather than return it. The most appalling entry: a short-order cook who drops a burger on the floor. He carefully wipes it off on his apron then places it on a dish for a waiting customer.

Out-of-home work, refrigerator magnets and coasters for area bars and restaurants, extend the on-target message: One magnet reads: “Ate co-worker’s yogurt? Redeem yourself. Donate blood and save 2 lives.”

Kyba describes the campaign strategy as “getting people excited about giving blood,” which she admits is “sort of a bizarre notion,” given the needles and occasional discomfort.

The strategy emerged after the agency’s executive creative director, Prentice Howe, discussed a personal incident during an office meeting. Howe was rushing home to his pregnant wife one day when he noticed that his colleague Hunter Hartwig’s vehicle had a flat tire. Instead of stopping to help, Howe kept going.

“It was one of those real-life stories that the creative team who developed this campaign used as an example of those funny, unfortunate moments throughout the day, where you undeniably made the wrong choice,” Kyba says.

This campaign is clever, lively and fun. It’s also working. Since its inception in March, donations at The Blood Center are up nearly 37% over the same time last year. There’s also been an increase of 48% in the number of people showing up to give blood. The campaign continues through next year.

Kyba says the approach clicked with the Blood Center because it fit the personality of the place. The center uses what is called a “hippy bus,” painted in the vibrant colors of the 1960s counter-culture movement, to drive around Austin to collect blood donations.

But using humor in blood donation campaigns carries risks.

AABB, the international association of blood banks based in Bethesda, Md., once featured an edgy ad done by The Martin Agency. In the spot, which has a mafia-like undertone, a man is sitting in a barbershop chair with a straight razor at his neck. Three women wearing nurse uniforms enter the shop and appear at his side. The copy on the television screen reads: “We are tired of asking nicely. Give blood.”

“We did have some complaints,” admits Jennifer Garfinkel, an AABB spokeswoman. “There are some people who are very loyal to donating blood, and they don’t want to see it tainted in any manner.”

Garfinkel thinks humor can be useful as a generational tool to attract younger donors, but cautions there is not the same comedic acceptance among older givers. “The loyal, World War II-era donor thinks this is serious business,” she says.