She does not seem the sort of woman who would ask a group of
70-year-old pensioners to lie barefoot on a mock-up of a mortuary board
and pretend to be dead.
Yet that is exactly what Helen Wright, a fresh-faced South Londoner who
is head of Help the Aged’s direct marketing department, has done. With
The resulting press and poster campaign, showing two rows of elderly
feet decorated only with toe tags in a morgue, accompanied by the words
’Thousands of elderly people will stop feeling the cold this winter’,
was unveiled earlier this month.
Designed to increase awareness of the choice the poorest pensioners have
to make between paying for heating or paying to eat, the bleakness of
the image must send a shiver of unease through the most hard-hearted
The shock factor led two national newspapers, The Daily Telegraph and
The Times, to turn down the ad, fearing it could cause distress to
readers with elderly, ill or recently-deceased relatives.
Other media took a different view. With shock tactics, particularly the
case of the Commission for Racial Equality, already in the news,
interest in the ad snowballed. On last Monday alone the plight of
pensioners and/or shock tactic advertising gave Help the Aged coverage
in news bulletins on all five national terrestrial channels, Sky News
and Radio 4’s Today programme.
Wright admits the charity took a conscious decision to tackle public
complacency with a shocking image: ’We did think long and hard about
what we were going to do,’ she says, ’and we knew it would shock, but we
decided that we needed something that would.’ However, she admits the
interest generated has been far greater than they dared anticipate.
Sitting in her untidy office at Help the Aged’s Clerkenwell headquarters
in London, Wright is clearly slightly wary of the media spotlight. She
appears younger than her 31 years, tends to giggle, and her words tumble
out in a rush of nervous enthusiasm with a strong South London lilt.
Yet, when asked to justify her decision to risk offending some older
people in a push for greater awareness for the charity, she remains
steadfast: ’You might think the ad is shocking but the fact that elderly
people die after having to choose between heating or eating is even more
shocking,’ she says, before confessing that she made sure that MPs,
pensioners’ groups and the telephone operators at Help the Aged were
briefed on the ad and the rationale behind it. The girly exterior, it
seems, is mere wallpaper.
’Helen is quite an emotional person, and will have gut reactions to
things and act upon them, but she has a very sound logical approach and
a good background in direct marketing theory,’ says Andrea Hughes,
Wright’s former boss and now senior manager for customer marketing at
Wright joined Help the Aged, on a whim, eight years ago as an
unqualified marketing assistant, after several years of flitting between
administrative jobs and travelling. Six years later she became head of
direct marketing, responsible for a team of 30 people with the job of
acquiring and retaining the donors on whom the charity relies for its
It is no easy task. Although it is one of the UK’s top ten charities,
securing donations of pounds 63m in the past financial year, Help the
Aged faces the challenge that old people are not front of the
charity-giving public’s mind: ’Children, animals, cancer, health all
come first. It makes our life harder, which is why you have to maximise
the consequences,’ says Wright.
The charity is also known within its sector for its conservative nature
and Wright put her reputation on the line in persuading the higher
echelons to run with the campaign. Yet the financial outlay was
The entire exercise, which including hiring three advans and projecting
the campaign onto the Houses of Parliament, cost just pounds 15,000.
Wright admits that it was mere chance that she ended up working for Help
the Aged. But her eight years in the job have left her committed to a
career in direct marketing and with a fondness for those she is trying
A chat to the ad agency, Target, reveals that at the shoot for the
campaign, which took place in the Cotswolds, Wright helped the eight
volunteer pensioners remove shoes and socks and washed their feet ready
for the photo.
’They were lovely,’ says Wright, effusive to the end. ’We explained the
concept to them and what we were doing. They had to lie on this board
with a sheet draped over them. But they weren’t shocked, and they knew
what we were trying to do.’
Marketing assistant, Help the Aged
Recruitment co-ordinator, Help the Aged
Marketing manager, committed giving, Help the Aged
Head of direct marketing, Help the Aged
This article was first published on Marketing