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Slate's Ad Report Card: We Want Your Blood


Our regular look at the business of advertising now. Seth Stevenson is ad critic for the online magazine, Slate, and as charitable as the next guy, normally, but when one public service announcement for a good cause starts dissing other good causes, well, that's a little too much for Seth.


Most charity ads are boring, treacly, guilt trips. By contrast, a new blood donation public service announcement is a slick piece of marketing. Its monologue is cleverly written, packing a complex narrative into a couple of funny run-on sentences.

Unidentified Man:(in commercial) These are made using child labor and sweat shops. I wrote a letter to the company saying, reconsider your labor practices.

STEVENSON:He goes on to tell a convoluted tale about his efforts to change the world, and how they're thwarted at every turn.

Unidentified Man:(in commercial) So, I got smart and wrote letters every day to all the stores that carry the brand, asking them to stop supporting the companies that use child labor and sweatshops. And I just kept getting letters back thanking me for my concern, and more coupons for more discounts on more jeans. So, I'm telling my friend about it, and she flips out saying, making all the letters and coupons, some paper company cut down a small forest.

STEVENSON: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.

Unidentified Man:(in commercial) Meanwhile the guys cutting down the trees are 13-year-old kids who work night and day for months, just to save up enough money to buy a pair of jeans made by child labor in sweatshops.

STEVENSON: A tag line fades in. It says, saving the world isn't easy, saving a life is. Just one pint of blood can save up to three lives. Give blood. This ad's got jumpy edits, extreme close-ups, and some unexpectedly vibrant imagery. We see split-second shots of, among other things, time-lapsed forest growth, microscopic organisms, dimly lit sweatshops, and some boxing chimpanzees.

The ad's most affective 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 can have complicated consequences, and the results can be hard to quantify. Seems like a simple choice.

Now, before I go further, I should note that I approve of the greater cause, here. Blood has a brief shelf life, 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 did charities bash the competition? Imagine a spot arguing that Ethiopian orphans are more worthy than Somalia 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 activisms.

Unidentified Man: (in commercial) Driving out two indigenous tribes, hundreds of endangered animals, killing thousands of plant species, some of which may contain the vaccines for HIV, cancer, and syphilis.

STEVENSON:The comparison in this PSA is horribly unfair. Blood donation is just a maintenance measure. It may save lives, but it won't make the world a better place. And while it's a fairly unassailable act of goodwill, even giving blood can be tainted by political vicissitudes. Some students have protested against the Red Cross, because gay men are not allowed to donate.

I give this ad a C-plus. I can imagine this campaign backfiring, since young people might resent being told to give up and do the easy thing. So kids, keep on saving the world, even if it's hard. And when you get a chance, throw a blood drive, too.

CHADWICK: Opinion from Seth Stevenson. He writes the Ad Report Card column for the online magazine, Slate. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Seth Stevenson