13 September 2010

Smile Train’s Marketing Decisions

After seeing the same image on ads throughout my browser from Smile Train, I decided to quickly write the following email on September 9 assuming that they would not respond:
Smile Train,
You do great work, but please consider the removal of this picture:
Give A Child With A Cleft A Second Chance At Life

It is one that takes advantage of the child who has no ability to choose if this image is used so prominently.  It also plays into the wrong emotions from your potential donors and creates a system where such images are OK to show.
Instead, why not show more pictures like this one:
Smile Pinki Now Video Smile Train
A play on the name would be wonderful as you show images of smiling children because they have had surgery. Why not create hope and build a movement that is empowering rather than one which is disheartening and depressing.  You do the former so well, why not match that with the images on your site?
Thank you for your time and I wish you all the best in your efforts.
Tom Murphy
To my surprise, I got the following response the next day from Donor Relations Assistant Duncan Quirk (which he has graciously permitted me to share):
Dear Tom,
On behalf of everyone here at Smile Train and all of the children that come through our programs, thank you for your recommendation.
As much as we would love to show the beautiful smiles of the children after their surgeries in all of our advertising, our latest market research tests have shown that, presently, we do receive a higher donation response to advertisements that only feature the before pictures. In order to help more children, we have to go with what our market tests tell us.
After donations, we do send before and after pictures to show to our donors the dramatic impact that they have had on a child’s life, and hopefully as we continue to conduct market research, the tides will shift and we can start advertising with the before and after pictures again. I will pass your email onto our marketing team and if you have any other questions or concerns, please don’t hesitate to let me know. Thanks again.
All the best,
I followed up asking if Smile Train would be willing to share any of the market research.  Mr. Quirk replied today informing me that they will not be able to share it as they place a large amount of time, effort and resources into collecting it and would prefer not to share their market testing publicly.  If it is possible, it would be great to know more about such studies.  The VSO released their findings based on the media’s portrayal of poverty recently called ‘The Live Aid Legacy’ (see a summary here).

While the marketing research of Smile Train could very well be right, I am concerned about the implications in the long term.  Does the current campaign bring in revenue at the cost of associating poverty with ‘doom-laden’ imagery?  I would argue no, but I am not trying to raise funds for an organization.
So, I ask, is it worth it?  Do NGOs have the opportunity to operate both ethically and successfully? or do some sacrifices need to be made?  And, at the root, is the image that Smile Train uses of the crying boy ok and I am overreacting?

Update 9/14: I emailed Mr. Quirk again as people were requesting to know their procedures for obtaining permission for the photographs, and he responded by saying:
So you and your readers know, Smile Train obtains written permission for use of patient photos to spread awareness about cleft and to raise additional funds for the hundreds of thousands of children who are still waiting to get the surgery they so desperately need.

ShotgunShack - People are Not Props
Good Intentions Are Not Enough - The Live Aid Legacy (blog post)
VSO International - The Live Aid Legacy (report)