A nasty new PSA.

Advertising deconstructed.
Jan. 16 2006 3:42 PM

In Cold Blood

A nasty new public service announcement from the American Red Cross.

The Spot: A young guy delivers a monologue. "When I found out my jeans were made using child labor in sweatshops," he begins, "I wrote a letter to the company saying, 'Reconsider your labor practices.' " He goes on to tell a convoluted tale about his efforts to change the world—and how they are thwarted at every turn. Ultimately, he argues, his attempts to stop child labor will—in an indirect fashion—eradicate the rain forest, kill off indigenous tribes, and impede cancer research. A tag line fades in: "Saving the world isn't easy. Saving a life is. Just one pint of blood can save up to three lives. Give blood." (Click here to see the spot.)

Most charity ads are boring, treacly guilt trips. (Here is an African orphan. Notice his jutting ribs. He smiles weakly. A fly lands on his eyeball. Shouldn't you send him money?)

Seth Stevenson Seth Stevenson

Seth Stevenson is a frequent contributor to Slate. He is the author of Grounded: A Down to Earth Journey Around the World.

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By contrast, this blood-donation PSA is a slick piece of marketing. It's got jumpy edits, extreme close-ups, and some unexpectedly vibrant imagery. We see split-second shots of, among other things: time-lapse forest growth, microscopic organisms, dimly lit sweatshops, and boxing chimpanzees. The monologue is cleverly written, too, reducing a complex narrative into a couple of funny, run-on sentences.

This ad's most effective tactic, though, is to draw a parallel between giving blood and "saving the world." You can do good both ways, the PSA suggests. But consider the difference: Giving blood is easy, it's over before you know it, and it's a tangible way to help people. On the other hand, social agitation (staging protests, organizing boycotts, writing letters to big corporations) can have complicated consequences, and the results can be difficult to quantify. Seems like a simple choice!

Before I go further, I should note that I approve of the greater cause here. Blood has a brief shelf life (only 42 days, according to the campaign's press release), and the national supply needs to be constantly replenished. No doubt, it would be terrific if more young people gave blood.

That said, this ad is a bit insidious. Since when do charities bash the competition? Imagine a spot arguing that Ethiopian orphans are more worthy than Somali orphans. That tsunami victims are more worthy than Katrina victims. Wouldn't happen. Yet this ad argues that giving blood is a better choice than advocating on behalf of those child laborers. It presents do-gooding as a zero-sum game.

In doing so, I think it takes its cues from classic consumer-marketing strategy. It's a ploy you've seen in thousands of ads for detergent, only this time, "Brand X" is progressive activism.

This is a horribly unfair comparison. Blood donation is just a maintenance measure. It may save lives, but it won't make the world a better place (as some activists' efforts have). And while it's a fairly unassailable act of good will, even giving blood can be tainted by political vicissitudes. Some students have protested against the Red Cross because gay men (a "risk" group) are not permitted to donate. (You can view the complete eligibility guidelines at the Red Cross Web site.)

Grade: C+. This campaign could backfire. Young people might resent being told to give up and do the easy thing. And actually, the Red Cross (one of the three major blood banks behind this campaign) handily illustrates how the easy choice can sometimes be the wrong one. After both Sept. 11 and Hurricane Katrina, the American public poured its money into the Red Cross' coffers. ($1.8 billion of the total $2.96 billion given after Katrina went to the Red Cross.) Giving to the Red Cross is straightforward, and easy, and it seems—just like giving blood—an unassailable act. But the way the Red Cross handled all that money, after both disasters, came under fire, and Red Cross President Marsha J. Evans recently resigned in the wake of the unfavorable scrutiny.

So kids, keep on saving the world—even if it's hard. And when you get a chance, throw a blood drive, too.