Starlight ad takes away kids’ dignity

Charity advertising is generally bombproof when it comes to criticism, but I wonder if the Starlight Children’s Foundation has gone too far with the half page ad in today’s Sun-Herald.  

starlightIt features two sad-looking children, both holding up hand-made signs saying “Choose me”, along with the heart-rending message: “With limited funds, we’ll have to choose which seriously ill child deserves happiness more.”

Yet my first reaction on seeing the ad is not the compassion one should feel, but anger at the emotional manipulation. By being asked to hold up the signs, it feels like the kids are being exploited in an entirely undignified way.

The fact that this is an organisation that recently helped spend nearly $15m on building a web site compounds things.

One can only hope that the kids in the images are actors.

Tim Burrowes – Mumbrella


  1. Mandi
    12 Apr 09
    5:27 pm

  2. A friend works for Starlight, we’ve had discussions about how difficult 2009 is going to be thanks to the downturn economy and the bushfire and flood appeals. Apparently they did it extremely tough after the tsunami and know exactly how detrimental a natural disaster can be. Obviously they have decided to ramp up their advertising to get their hands on some of the $900 that all retailers are vying for. I can understand how those involved would want a campaign that went for the jugular. I agree with you Tim, I’m not comfortable with the emotional manipulation but at the same time I hope it works.

    At lunch today we started discussing charities and it was noted that the calls for donations were increasing. However we also noticed that in the cases when we’ve had to decline, the callers have been more than understanding. I know personally this has given me a bigger guilt trip then this ad ever could. I know when I’m doing a bit better again I’ll be donating twice as much next time they call.

  3. Sharon M
    12 Apr 09
    8:17 pm

  4. I agree with Tim, this is simply appaling. Has their power gone to their heads, are they trying to play God? Theoretically, what would the criteria be to choose one child over another and who would have this power? S

  5. michael david leach
    15 Apr 09
    9:19 am

  6. Tim

    Absolutely agree – I had this discussion with my wife when we saw the ad in the newspaper that day. I wonder whether this ad might actually backfire and produce the opposite effect to that which was intended.

    The approach was poor taste and exploitative – presumably asking the children to produce the signs and then “look sad” for the camera.

    Without denigrating Starlight in any way, who are a wonderful charity and provide a very worthy service for the holistic care of children with severe medical conditons, they provide “distraction therapy”, not medicine.

  7. Louise
    15 Apr 09
    12:18 pm

  8. I agree, the advert is distasteful and upsetting.

    I had a small brother with cancer and I’d hate to think what he would’ve thought if he saw that advertisement…

    How would a child feel if they didn’t get their wish and were terminally ill? That they were not only dying but also not worthy?

  9. anonymous
    15 Apr 09
    12:57 pm

  10. When everything in the paper is doom and gloom, I see this and I just want to turn the page faster.

    The work that Starlight does is incredible and this ad does not do them justice. It does nothing to show me how Starlight brightens the lives of these kids.

    I’d rather see the good that Starlight can do. Give me a REAL story. Give me an old-fashioned coupon in the ad showing what my money can buy me to help.
    Tick the box, cut it out and send it in with a cheque.

    Real stories and a coupon work harder than any guilt trip.

  11. Nathan Bush
    15 Apr 09
    1:42 pm

  12. *shakes head*

  13. AdGrunt
    15 Apr 09
    3:18 pm

  14. They are an admirable organisation, but their board has some large personalities with “interesting” ideas.

    It takes a strong hand to steer them from their wilder ideas and in this case that hand seems to have slipped.

    Are GPY&R still their pro-bono agency?

  15. Anonymous
    15 Apr 09
    7:03 pm

  16. Sorry to be posting under ‘anonymous’ but…I worked at Starlight for a few years and had my soul destroyed by the people AdGrunt’s so aptly named ‘large personalities.’ Unfortunately they don’t seem to live in or understand the real world and use their work as a means of bullying people and bolstering their egos.
    I too saw the ads and felt turned off but wrote those feelings off as sour grapes on my part so interesting that others have felt as manipulated and turned off as I did.

  17. adam hunt
    16 Apr 09
    7:55 am

  18. Emotional manipulation is the criteria of a successful ad.
    For me the issue is whether the kids pictured are talent, or actually sick kids.
    If they’re not talent, then this one’s a pretty murky grey area for me – as I think it’s a very powerful message. This one troubles me as it’s somewhat exploitative – I think it’s got a foot on each side of the line of acceptability. It’s a tough ad for tough times.

  19. AdGrunt
    16 Apr 09
    10:28 am

  20. Adam
    I agree most cause-related advertising, by dint of their business model, are emotionally charged.
    However I can’t recall any charity of worth, let alone a kids charity, stoop to such blatant “give us your money or the kid gets it” emotional blackmail.
    Starlight is / was a happy, positive organisation that prided itself on bringing happiness and relief via distraction therapies. They did some lovely ads last year which have been around a while. This is an ugly turn for the worse.
    Anonymous – feel good about the great work you did, in spite of the personalities.
    The proof will be in the donation pudding…

  21. adam hunt
    16 Apr 09
    1:24 pm

  22. I think we’re in agreement Mr Grunt. This ad troubles me – although not as much as the Child Abuse stuff on Gruen did last night. And on those ads – commenting in Creative Choice in AdNews, Emil Vrisakis from Spin quoted disgusted child abuse survivors who absolutely hated the commercial (any chance of a link please Tim?)
    I think the Starlight donation pool will be as eagerly awaited as the sales results from Naked’s Fake Jacket Girl.

  23. Anonymous
    16 Apr 09
    2:30 pm

  24. Whilst I agree that emotional manipulation is part of every ad campaign, this just feels very distasteful. Starlight don’t use actors they use “real” sick children. There is no way this ad would make me want to donate. We have to ask don’t we…… why are they in such a financial crisis? Have other charities had to resort to such tactics?

  25. mumbrella
    16 Apr 09
    2:50 pm

  26. Hi Adam,

    Unfortunately I can’t offer a link to the AdNews piece because their current model for their site is a paid subscription one.

    By the way, I’ve noticed that some people with Starlight email addresses have joined our newsletter mailing list in the last 24 hours or so, so I guess they’re aware of this conversation. Hopefully somerbody from the organisation might choose to post a comment and let us know a little more about this one.


    Tim – Mumbrella.

  27. michael david leach
    16 Apr 09
    3:37 pm

  28. Short term donation results might be one thing – long term brand damage may be another. This execution is so at odds with the organisation’s ethos and mission of “fun therapy” (to steal Camp Quality’s line), that is hard to imagine that any good will come from it. We simply cannot reduce the measures of success to one dimension of “did it provoke a response?” if you also disenfranchise a large proportion of the audience.

    For some brands we should never confuse effectiveness and controversy. In this case you can see how the agency’s objectives can be misaligned to the client’s (even though they approved it presumably).


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