I saw this nonprofit advocacy commercial last night by VoteVets.org, the League of Conservation Voters, the Sierra Club, and SEIU who are all lobbying for clean energy climate legislation.

While I recommend that nonprofits capitalize on opportunities to link their activities to what’s in the news, I don’t think this particular “cleaning wildlife covered by oil” metaphor works.  Watch the video, then let’s talk about it:

Here’s my problem with this metaphor. We all feel tremendous sympathy for birds and other wildlife caught in the oil spill. The real images that we are seeing daily from the Gulf Coast of birds gasping for air and struggling to move under the weight of the oil are heartbreaking. We feel so sorry for what’s happening to the innocent, defenseless wildlife. Every time we see that kind of imagery, we are basically now programmed to want to defend and protect the wildlife, and to hate the people responsible.

But we aren’t supposed to feel sympathy for Senator Burr and the others who are targeted with this same ad in other states. We aren’t supposed to view them as innocent and defenseless  – quite the contrary. We are supposed to be upset that they are taking money from Big Oil and not supporting the legislation. Though the ad doesn’t say it directly, it implies that we need to hold people like him responsible for allowing these disasters to happen, or at a minimum, for not supporting legislation to prevent them in the future. He’s anything but innocent.

So the images presented in the commercial don’t match up with what our natural emotional reactions to this kind of scene are. By switching up the emotions we are supposed to feel, the power of the metaphor is lost.

I understand the intent of the ad:  the volunteers are trying to cleanse the dirty senator of his oily campaign contributions, but they aren’t sure if they can save him and we are supposed to make the call to his office to help. But while the metaphor may be clever intellectually, I think it’s confusing emotionally, which is a problem in a 30-second commercial. Ads like these must have a very clear, focused emotional impact to be effective. You shouldn’t have to think too much about a commercial; you should just get it.

I’m doing a lot of thinking now about how nonprofits use metaphors, as I’m working on a new webinar on the topic for August. So it’s possible that I’m overthinking this one! But my honest first reaction was “Oh, poor person covered with oil. Uh-oh, wait, he’s a bad guy, I’m not supposed to care about him. It’s his own fault he’s covered in oil. We are supposed to feel sorry for him and try to save him? Huh?”

What do you think? Does this ad — and the metaphor in it — work?

Published On: July 8, 2010|Categories: Nonprofit Communications|

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