Threatening a Goldfish to Save the Oceans

Is Shock and Awe Effective in Cause Marketing?

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From the "I Love Boobies" campaign brought to you by Keep a Breast Foundation to the often graphic illustrations of rotting organs in antismoking ads, cause marketing has gone rogue in the battle for consumer attention. But is the shock approach truly effective in the nonprofit world?

Jeremy Baka with Scary Teddy
Jeremy Baka with Scary Teddy
Depends on how you define "effective."

Despite the "seen it all" attitude of many consumers today, it's still relatively easy to shock them. Push a polar bear off a skyscraper in the name of CO2 emissions and -- splat! -- instant awareness and recognition. But while souped-up shocking delivers the wow factor for many campaigns, it unfortunately often loses track of the why. Too much wow and not enough why leaves you with a multimillion-dollar Super Bowl ad that offends rather than connects with your target audience. In the nonprofit world, generating awareness via controversy only works if the attention you draw to your cause promotes positive change (and literal change, if donations are sought).

Our agency recently teamed up with Project Kaisei, a nonprofit organization committed to cleaning up the North Pacific's Plastic Garbage Patch. Each year, thousands of marine creatures are destroyed due to plastic pollution in the ocean. To make this massive global issue more personal and meaningful to people, we needed an emotional hook that would grab their attention and provoke them to action. The solution? An "eco-reality show" that centers on Kai, a sharp-tongued, but loveable goldfish whose life is literally on the line.

While Kai is currently living in a safe aquatic environment, the shock message was clear: In less than 30 days, Kai would move into an aquarium polluted with plastics, a microcosm of the real Plastic Vortex. Visitors to the "Save Kai" Facebook page can make a donation and watch live via a 24-hour webcam as pieces of plastic are removed from Kai's future home. A total of $10,000 in donations will remove all the plastic, making Kai's new home fit for him to live in. But of course, if the $10,000 isn't raised …

Is it shocking to threaten a fish in such a promotional fashion? Yes -- just as shocking as the Texas-size swath of plastic floating in the North Pacific Gyre, suffocating sea life and making its way into our food supply. The wow is there (a campaign that threatens a fish's life), as is the why (the money raised goes toward Project Kaisei's next ocean clean-up expedition). It works. It makes sense. (And, for the record, we believe -- we know -- Kai will be saved. Because no one wants to watch a goldfish die on camera, especially us). For the curious -- or fearful -- you can follow Kai's plight on Facebook and Twitter until World Oceans Day on June 8.

The "Save Kai" fundraising effort is part of our larger Project Kaisei campaign stretching from Europe to Asia to the U.S., so the donations being generated specifically by the site won't be broken out until after the campaign's completion at the end of June. However, as of last week, total "likes" on Facebook jumped 97%, and our Twitter following reached 347,000.

We trust that consumers will see Kai's 30-day struggle as a metaphor for thousands of fish and other marine life that suffer daily from the plastic encroaching on one of the most remote ecosystems on the planet. And that is the underlying message: People caused the problem, only people can solve it.

Creating a campaign using shock-and-awe tactics is easy, but the best campaigns are those that strategically make an authentic and emotional connection to the product, service or cause for which the campaign was designed.

Sometimes it doesn't take a village. It just takes one lonely goldfish -- and a hook.

Create on.

Jeremy Baka is chief creative catalyst for Cohn & Wolfe, Los Angeles

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