When rebrands go wrong

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'Threatening' Cancer Research DM campaign banned

A direct mail campaign for Cancer Research UK has been banned by the ASA for “threatening” recipients and failing to make it clear that it was a piece of marketing.

Cancer Research Logo

The mailer, created by RAPP, was delivered in a plain brown envelope that stated: “It doesn’t matter to me who you are” in place of an address.

A letter inside, written as if it were from cancer personified, read: “Everyone knows me. And they know the devastation I cause … I AM CANCER … I don’t care who I hurt … But now it’s getting harder. More and more of you are ganging up on me. People are giving money and funding research. Scientists are outsmarting me. And there’s one group threatening me the most. Cancer Research UK are fighting back … Don’t donate to Cancer Research UK. I’m sure you have better things to spend your money on than trying to beat me. Don’t you?”.

Read the full DM letter below.

A donation leaflet and a business reply envelope were also enclosed.

The campaign drew complaints the letter was “threatening” and likely to cause serious distress to past or current sufferers of cancer or vulnerable members of the public.

One complaint also challenged that the envelope was not clearly identifiable as marketing.

Cancer Research UK defended the campaign saying the purpose of the ad as a charity appeal meant that any distress was likely to be “transitory” and was “justified in its aim to raise money.”

The charity also said it is “irrational, illogical and not in accordance with the [advertising] Code” to consider the envelope in isolation from its contents, adding it was intended to have “an element of intrigue” so that recipients read it, rather than throw it away.

The reverse of the envelope identified Cancer Research UK and its address which the charity believes made it clear the letter was a marketing communication from the organisation.

The watchdog ruled the content of the letter and the appearance of the message on the envelope in place of an address was presented in an “aggressive and threatening” manner and was likely to cause serious distress to some members of the public, particularly those who were vulnerable.

The ASA also ruled the envelope was not clearly identifiable as marketing material and breached the Code.

Nick Georgiadis, head of direct giving at Cancer Research UK, says: “We’d like to take this opportunity to apologise to anyone who was upset by this mailing and reiterate that it was never our intention to cause distress. The aim of the appeal was to inspire people to fund our research by representing the anger some people feel towards this terrible disease. When the original mailing was sent out we listened carefully to what our supporters said about it - both positive and negative - and in November we decided not to use this appeal again in its current format.”

Full Cancer Research UK DM letter:
“Everyone knows me. And they know the devastation I cause. I didn’t think it could happen to me. That’s what a lot of people say. The truth is it happens to most of more than one in three. For those people, their friends and families, things won’t ever be the same again. And it’s all down to me. I AM CANCER … I don’t care who I hurt… Why am I writing to you? I used to have everything my own way. When someone tried to fight me, I always won. But now it’s getting harder. More and more of you are ganging up on me. People are giving money and funding research. Scientists are outsmarting me. And there’s one group threatening me the most. CANCER RESEARCH UK ARE FIGHTING BACK. They’ve been coming after me for a long time. Now they’re saying that someday soon, I won’t be a death threat anymore … I’m still here. But before you think the fight is over, you’re forgetting one thing. The people at Cancer Research UK need more funding to carry on their research … But times are tough. Any money isn’t easy to come by. Sure, twice as many people might survive compared to 40 years ago. But I’m still tearing lives apart. Every two minutes I take hold of another person … DON’T GIVE MONEY. So let me give you some advice. Don’t donate to Cancer Research UK. I’m sure you have better things to spend your money on than trying to beat me. Don’t you?”.

Readers' comments (2)

  • It's definitely a fine line that charities like Cancer Research have to tread. On the one hand they need to deliver hard-hitting campaigns that force people to wake up and face the realities of cancer, but on the other hand they have to be sensitive to the ongoing struggle of cancer sufferers and their families.

    In this instance I think the campaign was well meaning in it's overall strategy, but by using only typography the end result is far more threatening than if they'd used a 'character' to represent cancer (not a cartoon character as this would trivialise the disease).

    The Clarion Portfolio would probably recommend using an actual sufferer as the 'face' of cancer.

    Showing how this disease ravages the body would help to build the public's distain for the disease whilst also building sympathy for its victims.

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  • Charities and companies have to consider the negative impact of certain marketing campaigns, and whilst this will have captured the public's attention; it sounds like it's done more harm than good, especially to their reputation.

    The letter, although supposedly from 'cancer' itself, is definitely disturbing and it's obvious why a cancer patient (or relative of) would be upset by it. A few years ago I had the opportunity to work on the 'Be Clear on Cancer' campaign for the NHS; and whilst this was about promoting awareness for early diagnosis rather than raising money for cures, it had a very positive effect by showing care and consideration for the person in receipt of the message.

    Unfortunately, Cancer Research's message disguises this consideration behind a confrontational and frightening message, which risks distracting people from the actual point of the campaign.

    Too risky a strategy, for a charity to potentially waste money on!

    Plus, my opinion as a copywriter - it's not worded very well either ;)

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