The Ethics and Opportunities of Nonprofit Guerilla Marketing
In an article written by Professor Brian Mittendorf of Ohio State University, he answered a particularly salient question: “Are nonprofits underinvesting in advertising?” He ranked the ad spending as a percentage of expenses of the “10 largest U.S. nonprofits (as ranked by Forbes) and the 10 largest U.S. for-profits (as ranked by Fortune),” only to find that the results far exceeded his expectations.
The organization that spent the most percentage-wise—was the American Cancer Society, a nonprofit. It would be a mistake to assume that this was isolated—several other nonprofits followed closely behind.
If it really is the case that nonprofits advertise as much, if not more than many for-profits, then why do we continue to hear about nonprofit institutions being unable to communicate their message? Since it is evidently not because they are not spending enough, clearly the answer lies elsewhere, perhaps, towards how specifically that money is used.
Aside from the occasional Ad Council campaign—the public service announcement nonprofit that created Smokey Bear and Love Has No Labels—we can see what the field really lacks is innovation or developing a new advertising technique that grabs attention and provokes like no other. In response to this need, nonprofits have slowly begun to adopt highly effective—but highly risky—ad schemes, known as nonprofit guerilla marketing campaigns.
Guerilla marketing is used by companies as a way to bypass the advertising middleman and broadcast the target brand directly to the consumer. To clarify, a recent example was when Wheeler Mission—a women’s and children’s shelter —“is placing sidewalk art throughout Indianapolis featuring lifelike and life-size images of homeless women and children huddling together on the sidewalk,” hoping to be able to meet its “18-month, $1.25 million capital” goal as a result. As can be seen, the goal of such initiatives is to elicit an emotional response—whether it be sadness, anger, shock, joy, or laughter—so as to drastically increase recognition and awareness.
The Mission certainly is not the first non-profit to engage in guerilla tactics—famous groups like the World Wildlife Fund and UNICEF have done so to great effect; the former replaced paper towel dispensers with ones that symbolized the depletion of the Amazon, while the latter set up “Dirty Water” vending machines on city sidewalks. Others, however, are much more cautious; guerilla marketing stunts can go horribly wrong just as easily as they can go very right.
Perhaps the oldest and most renowned example of guerilla marketing would be the Oscar-Mayer Wienermobile. Since 1936, the roving Wiener has traveled across the world, delighting people with toy whistles and hot-dog related conversation wherever it goes. Before the internet, the Wienermobile was truly a pleasant guerilla shock for surprised townspeople as it rolled by, helping to elevate the company to its now national status.
Seeing as how we are all still recovering from “World Cup Mania,” it would be topical to mention Swinkels Family Brewers’—or Bavaria’s—successful stunt during a match between Holland and Denmark. The company hired 36 women to wear (their color) orange logoless dresses to dramatically cheer, or otherwise, pretty much pretend they weren’t watching a game of soccer.
And it worked—the cameras continually panned out to the girls, and as a result, according to CNN, while other beer companies sales rose by 12 percent, Bavaria’s shot up by 41 percent. It was so successful, that the ploy received a nomination at the Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity. The only downside was that FIFA detained the “superfans,” threatening them with jail time before they were eventually released.
Bavaria’s kerfuffle reveals the necessity for companies that engage in guerilla marketing to lightly tread the line between proper procedure and illegality. This is doubly true when it comes to nonprofits, as tasteless practices could reflect poorly onto and damage the cause itself. The line cannot be drawn at simply illegal actions here; it has to include ethics as well.
While companies can flirt with the risk, nonprofits cannot, as they are representing something positive that needs their help, as opposed to selling a product. Even big names, like Coca-Cola, fail to do this from time to time. They were sued by the City of New Orleans several years ago for illegally graffiting city sidewalks with Coke Zero advertisements.
Much worse than that was when the Turner Broadcasting System—the parent company of CNN and relevently in this case, the Adult Swim network as well—was forced to apologize to the city of Boston for accidentally creating a bomb scare with its marketing for its cartoon, Aqua Teen Hunger Force.
What is important to recognize about all of these attempts—even the ones that were illegal—is that they were all extremely cost-effective. The price of stencils, spray-paint, dresses and even a car dressed up as a hot dog pales in comparison to the cost of traditional advertising.
To put that into perspective, had Bavaria attempted to use traditional advertising instead of orange mini-dresses, Vanity Fair reported that it would have cost them over $300,000 to do so. If the American Cancer Society had used its highest-in-the-country advertising expenses on guerilla marketing, imagine the unbelievable returns it would have received.
With the ability to wield such an effective and powerful tool, it is inconceivable why nonprofits have yet to fully embrace guerilla marketing; with tact, of course.
For organizations that are in-touch with the issues concerning their communities, why would they not choose the advertising strategy that lets them speak directly to community members? It can even be said that its adoption is natural for nonprofits, as it empowers those with beneficial and favorable ideas to connect with those that can help with the solution like never before thus greatly lowering the barrier of advertising costs.
Moshe Hecht, winner of the 2017 NonProfit PRO Technology Professional of the Year, is a philanthropy futurist, public speaker and chief innovation officer of Charidy, a crowdfunding platform and consulting company that has helped 3,000 organizations raise over $700 million.
Moshe's passion lies at the intersection of technology and charitable giving. When Moshe is not at the office, he is writing music and enjoying downtime with his wife and three redheaded children.