Don’t Dial ‘M’ for Murder, Type ‘A’ for Altruistic

by Stuart Elliott, The New York Times
Nyt-dial-m-231x300-5-09

By Stuart Elliott, The New York Times

Most appeals to donate blood treat the subject as if it was a matter of life and death — and, often, to be sure, it is. But a new campaign is taking a different tack, on the theory that a light-hearted approach may attract more donors.

The campaign, for the Blood Center of Central Texas, is created by an agency in Austin, Tex., named Door Number 3. The television, print and online advertisements suggest in a humorous vein that the good deed of donating blood could offset everyday bad behavior.

This is the second go-round for the campaign, which returns this week for a run that is scheduled to last through the end of July. During its first appearance, from March 18 through mid-April, donations increased by 20 percent, the Blood Center says.

The idea of the campaign is expressed in its theme: “Redeem yourself. Donate blood, save two lives and make up for just about anything.”

Anything? Well, certainly not capital crimes, nor heinous offenses like wearing white after Labor Day (unless you’re a nurse).

But according to the campaign, donating blood will compensate for misdeeds like mooching off a neighbor’s Wi-Fi, closing an elevator door on a co-worker who asks you to hold the door, leaving a shopping cart in the wrong place in a parking lot or taking home office supplies.

The campaign is indicative of unconventional tacks agencies are taking to get the public to pay attention to ads with altruistic messages. Hard as it is for such campaigns to cut through the clutter normally, it can be more difficult in tumultuous times when consumers are worried about making a living, holding on to their jobs or figuring out how to afford retirement.

“We had had an advertising program” before this, says Linda Printz, chief marketing officer at the Blood Center, that was “more traditional,” stressing “the importance of giving blood.”

The new campaign “picks up quite nicely” on the fact that people are only human, she adds, by declaring that “you can be human and do a very noble thing, donate blood and save lives.”

There is some risk to the campaign, Ms. Printz acknowledges, in that “you will have people who will view this and think, ‘This is not how I want to be depicted.’ ”

On the other hand, “you can be anyone and donate blood,” she adds.

Another point in favor of this approach is that “in Austin we have a different sense of humor,” Ms. Printz says. Her reference is to the local spirit that manifests itself in ways that include a long-running campaign to promote small business, which carries the theme “Keep Austin weird.”

There are four television commercials in the campaign, directed by Mike Angelo Torres of the Austin production company Rebel Rebel. Perhaps the most egregious behavior depicted in the spots takes place in the one set in the kitchen of a restaurant, which evokes recent culinary capers by employees of Domino’s Pizza and Burger King.

A young man is frying a hamburger on a grill when it drops on the floor. He wipes it off and puts it on a paper platter, intending to serve it despite the sanitary faux pas.

“Donate blood,” says the voice-over announcer, “save two lives and make up for just about anything.”

Not far behind in the annals of bad behavior is an office worker in another commercial. He is waiting for an elevator and hears an older woman, carrying boxes, say, “Hold the elevator, please.”

When the elevator arrives, he gets on — and hits the “close” button. The spot ends with the same pitch from the announcer.

In a third commercial, a woman is in her car at a traffic light as a squeegee guy wipes her windshield. When the light changes, she drives off without tipping him. (Residents of New York City may argue that encouraging a squeegee guy is the behavior that would need to be redeemed, not ignoring them.)

In a fourth spot, a woman in a parking lot leaves her shopping cart in the wrong place; it falls over.

The print ads depict people’s hands, with their bad deeds identified as points on the life lines on their palms. In each instance, there is redemptive behavior: “Donated blood and saved two lives.”

In one ad, the misdeeds are “Cheated on art history exam” and “Forgot wedding anniversary.” In a second ad, the hand reveals these bad deeds: “Dropped baby sister” and “Took office supplies home.”

In a third ad, the wrongs are “‘Borrowed’ mom’s car” and “Stiffed the valet.” And in a fourth ad, they are “Raided parent’s liquor cabinet” and “Mooched off neighbor’s Wi-Fi.”

Although the need to donate blood “is a serious topic,” says Prentice Howe, creative director at Door Number 3, “this isn’t the time to go out there and be heavy.”

The campaign is also intended to “embrace that Austin creative, eccentric attitude,” he adds.

Mr. Howe traces the genesis of the idea to a meeting he had with Phil Davies, a copywriter at the agency, and Taylor Harkey, an art director.

“They’d been working on it for a while and ‘Redeem yourself’ came up,” Mr. Howe recalls. “We talked about it, and it started to get funny and very relatable.”

“I told them a story,” Mr. Howe says, “about how late on a rainy Friday I saw that one of our media guys had a flat tire” on his car in the agency’s parking lot. Mr. Howe says he stopped, looked at the flat tire — “and floored it,” driving away without doing anything to help.

“We’re all less than perfect,” Mr. Howe says.

As the campaign continues, there are plans to add other elements to spur blood donations by taking people to task for common misdeeds.

There could be “e-mail blasts to the blood center’s donor base,” Mr. Howe says, “asking people, ‘Did you steal your co-worker’s lunch out of the fridge?’ ”

Or at bars, he adds, patrons who give out misinformation to people they have no interest in ever seeing again could be chided by coasters that ask, “Did you write down the wrong phone number?”