Organ Donor Campaigns Are More Creative Than Ever, But Are They Working?

Award-winning ads are moving the needle for registrations

Second Life Toys helped change the conversation about organ donation in Japan. Courtesy of Second Life Toys
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In recent years, a burst of creativity from the industry has come from an unlikely source: organ donation nonprofits. From Japan to Peru, agencies from around the world are dreaming up imaginative, award-winning campaigns that all share a common goal: convince more people to become organ donors.

Much of the work has cut through the noise and resulted in what is a decidedly straightforward metric of success: increased registration numbers.

Perhaps one of the most notable campaigns came from The Martin Agency, known for its “World’s Biggest Asshole” spot on behalf of nonprofit Donate Life. The nearly three-minute video tells the story of Coleman Sweeney—a man whose moral compass is severely lacking—played by actor Thomas Jane. It’s only when Sweeney dies unexpectedly that he’s suddenly cast in a different light. The ad’s ending reminds viewers that “even an asshole can save a life.”

The campaign primarily targeted millennial men, a demographic that Chris Mumford, president of The Martin Agency, said Donate Life was struggling to connect with.

“Organ donation was just not on their radar, so we needed to do something pretty drastic to wake them up,” he said. Registrations among the male millennial demographic jumped 115% in the week after the video launched. It also had a broader appeal, as total registrations rose by a whopping 698% compared to the week prior.

Mumford said much of the campaign’s success can be attributed to the fact that it was actually relatable. As he puts it, every guy feels like there’s a bit of an “asshole” streak in him, and the messaging was able to capitalize on that feeling in a humorous way.

“It was a classic, simple insight that generated a really interesting idea,” Mumford said of the campaign, which went on to win 10 Cannes Lions. “It’s just one of those things that caught on fire and really tapped into a cultural insight that nobody else had found.”

More recently, Donate Life worked with Casanova//McCann on an initiative that targeted residents of California, a state that lags behind in registered organ donors. The simple premise required buy-in from three local police departments, which gave out “second chance” tickets instead of fines to drivers who committed traffic violations, but were registered organ donors.

The initiative, which launched in April, has already proven to be effective thanks to the attention it’s received: according to Casanova//McCann, Donate Life California’s online month-to-month registrations increased 27% between March and April.

Elias Weinstock, chief creative officer at Casanova//McCann, pins the campaign’s nascent success on its innovative angle.

“It’s an approach based on forgiveness, on giving a second chance to someone who is giving others a second chance at life. It will also help improve the perception of police officers; nobody likes getting pulled over, but in this case they drove away with gratitude.”

Another recent success story comes from Peru, where agency Circus Grey pulled off a TV crossover that had the whole country talking. Considering Peru has dismal organ donor rates, the agency knew it would have to create something “massive and disruptive,” according to executive creative director Charlie Tolmos, if it wanted to get the country’s attention.

This line of thinking resulted in an elaborate pop culture collaboration between two of Peru’s most popular soap operas; when a character in one of the soaps died, one of his kidneys went on to save a man in a different telenovela. Millions of viewers watched the plot twist, which appears to have made an impact.

Interest in information about organ donation increased so much that the Peruvian Ministry of Health needed to hire more people to work in its call center, Tolmos said, noting that in just a week after the campaign launched, the number of donors in the country jumped by 200%.

Tolmos believes the effort was successful because it found a way to insert itself into a pop culture phenomenon. When somebody dies in one of the shows, it makes national headlines in Peru—so why not use that opportunity to spread a crucial message in an entertaining fashion?

“Its effectiveness lies in the fact that with a disruptive action and with minimal budget, we managed to reach a really large number of people with a strong message,” Tolmos said.



This story first appeared in the June 3, 2019, issue of Adweek magazine. Click here to subscribe.

@Minda_Smiley Minda Smiley is an agencies reporter at Adweek.