NEWS ANALYSIS: Comic Relief swings its pants for your donations - With Comic Relief again upon us, Chris Scott explores the communications challenges facing the charity, which needs to convince the public that it should keep donating

Since its first appeal in 1988, Red Nose Day has sought to raise

money for worthy causes in a style that is markedly different to other

charities and events.

Yet 15 years and thousands of events later, the brand faces a constant

battle to re-invent and re-invigorate itself.

Over the years, Comic Relief has varied its focus to keep the public

keen, coming up with gimmicks such as 'The Invasion of the Comic

Tomatoes' in 1993 and 1997's 'Small Change - Big Difference'


The diversity of the marketing of the event has been matched by the

alternating focus of the appeals. It initially concentrated on famine in

Africa, before addressing a host of medical and social issues in the


This year's event - 'Say Pants to Poverty' - has again seen the charity

come up with a fresh angle, which, according to media relations manager

Sarah Burke, 'works brilliantly as tackling poverty is at the core of

what we do, and it's a great opportunity for entertaining photos with


Since the inaugural event in 1988, the captive audience status - the

backbone of the telethon - has been diluted by the plethora of satellite

and digital stations available on our screens.

Burke admits that the charity is 'lucky to have strong support from

celebrities - the likes of Richard Curtis bringing in fresh talent and

continually coming up with ideas such as Celebrity Big Brother, enabling

it to overcome stiff competition at TV and charitable levels.'

Indeed the reprise of Channel 4's reality TV phenomenon - a rare piece

of cross-channel co-operation - epitomises the goodwill the event

attracts even among its erstwhile rivals.

The willingness of the organisers to expand into different areas is

vital to its continuing success. This year sees the advent of online

donations courtesy of technology giant Cisco Systems, as well as

campaigns targeted specifically at untapped fundraising sources in the


Shimon Cohen, CEO of Bell Pottinger PR which is handling publicity for

Cisco's involvement, believes that by implementing top of the range

technology (which can apparently handle 200 consecutive credit card

transactions a second) the charity can reach beyond the confines of both

the UK and the eight hours of broadcast it commands on a Friday


Harrison Cowley volunteered its services to the organisation and has

been promoting the charity directly in the regions through a mixture of

celebrity appearances, promoting local projects, and corporate


Director Alan Twigg denied that this was a reaction to dwindling

interest, but simply an attempt to enhance donations in areas which

often miss out on the London-centred festivities.

Burke dismisses the suggestion that necessity prompted a change in

emphasis, describing the move as 'raising the profile of the fund,

getting it back to its roots and making it relevant to people in the

regions who immediately associate Comic Relief with work in Africa.'

Patrick Keegan, media director at Freud Communications which handled the

launch of this year's campaign, sees a shift in the way money is


'Maybe there were more students sitting in baths full of baked beans ten

years ago than there are now, but that's because you can do so much more

and still contribute, such as watching a charity football match,' he


Indeed the raft of commercial arrangements involving Comic Relief makes

donating money easier than ever. A 1999 report by Business in the

Community showed that 86 per cent of consumers looked favourably on

firms which undertook good works. In the same year, Persil increased

sales by 25 per cent while raising pounds 260,000 for Comic Relief with

themed 'Red Nose' boxes.

While the companies involved will only say they join in because it is a

good cause, there is no denying that the firms are also able to improve

their corporate image as well as sales.

The use of corporate partners - 29 involved in various roles this year -

is also an opportunity for Comic Relief to make money outside of the

traditional five-week binge.

'It's just about looking for new audiences that we don't easily attract

through Red Nose Day itself,' explains Burke. 'This year we've had the

chance to get the attention of a lot of kids with the JK Rowling book

and, at the other end of the market, Delia Smith's book too.'

A slump in charitable contributions in the early 1990s was widely

attributed to the recession. This downslide has continued as the

majority of charities have seen both the size and the quantity of

donations continue to tail off.

The National Council for Voluntary Organisations has admitted the slump

could be linked to the launch of the National Lottery since 'some people

don't make a clear distinction between buying a ticket and giving to


However, while others have struggled, Comic Relief recovered

dramatically to chalk up record takings in excess of pounds 35m in


With economic conditions roughly comparable to those two years ago, and

the charity continuing to diversify and find fresh sources of revenue,

the real test for the publicity operation will be whether or not Red

Nose Day 2001 can raise even more.

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