About AEF | Newsletter | Site Map | Legal | Advanced Search
Print Version

How Michael J. Fox Sees the World

In recent years, the Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson's Research tried to spark awareness for its cause by running spots that featured the actor and cohorts from his sitcom "Spin City," including Heather Locklear. They engaged in cheery, light-hearted banter.

In new public-service announcements crafted by Interpublic Group's Deutsch that are set to be distributed to media outlets, Mr. Fox's visage will be blurred at times by effects meant to mimic the vision of a person who suffers from the same affliction as he does. Mr. Fox revealed in 1998 that he has Parkinson's disease.

Mr. Fox says the time has come for a more serious approach. "People know the association I have with the disease," he says. "It's important that they can picture it, experience it, relate to it on that level and act on it."

As consumers grow harder to hook with ads that use traditional means, and more difficult to find due to a fragmenting media landscape, marketers of causes, charities and issues are dipping into a new bag of tricks. Some eschew the heartstring-plucking they relied on in times past and others are tapping new techniques more appropriate to consumers who get their information from places other than the television screen.

Such marketing "definitely needs something that is going to really, really catch the consumer off-guard," says Edward Boches, chief creative officer of Interpublic's Mullen agency. "You still potentially have the jaded or cynical or skeptical or 'I just don't care' factor in the audience," he adds.

To highlight the benefits of bread for the Grain Foods Foundation, Mullen launched a viral outdoor campaign in New York and Washington in early February. The purpose? Members of the media would see the posters and taxicab signs and start asking why they showed pictures of a heart or a baby made out of a loaf of bread. The hope was that people would think the effort was part of a national ad campaign and become intrigued, Mr. Boches says.

Sometimes ad-resistant teens are the target of such a campaign. The Partnership for a Drug-Free America has set up a Web site in the hopes of intercepting young people who might be searching for information on the Internet about "robotripping," or overindulging in cough syrup or cold medications with dextromethorphan, says Steve Dnistrian, an executive vice president at the organization. "Mass media and television are not the best way to get them," he says of teens curious about drug use.

Cause marketers have long tried to raise eyebrows or capture consumer attention -- just as Coca-Cola and Procter & Gamble do. Anyone who recalls the famous "this is your brain on drugs" commercials that likened a drug-addled cerebrum to an egg sizzling in a pan can attest to that. But because this category has long relied on traditional broadcast ads created and aired pro bono by ad agencies and media outlets, these marketers aren't always able to pick the exact time and atmosphere in which their ads appear.

So, such advertisers need to take advantage of everything from grass-roots programs at colleges to cellphone text-messaging, says Peggy Conlon, president and chief executive of the Advertising Council, the largest producer of public-service announcements. "We are doing the same kinds of marketing programs that paid marketers are, to reach these audiences beyond just the donated model for public-service advertising," she says.

Expect to see other new forms arise in this niche. "To get attention is one thing. It's relatively easy," says Mr. Fox. Better to galvanize people to interact and take action, he adds.


Brian Steinberg, The Wall Street Journal. May 18, 2005

Copyright © 2005 Dow Jones & Company, Inc.. All rights reserved.