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From ‘one day’ to ‘right now’ – why we should pay attention to Cancer Research UK’s new ads

The new adverts from Cancer Research UK make for compelling viewing, and create a sense of urgency and immediacy aimed at gaining donor support for a long-term mission.

The decision to base the ads on Channel 4’s wildly popular ’24 Hours in A&E’ is truly inspired, and the images and stories that are merged into these short TV ads are powerful and human. But what’s most interesting is the shift to talking about cancer, and about research, as happening ‘right now’. This is a big change from the future focus CRUK has previously promoted with its message about seeing ‘a day when cancer will be beaten’.

CRUK’s director of brand, marketing and communications Anthony Newman has told The Drum: ‘The problem with that is that it makes it sound like it’s still a really long way off.’ Instead the charity wants to communicate that it’s ‘beating cancer every day, because every day we gain new knowledge, and this knowledge lasts forever’.

For medical research charities, the long-term goal is usually simple – to eradicate a disease, or find a cure. This big goal is usually articulated as the charity’s vision or mission – a world free of motor neurone disease, for example, or a future where we’ve beaten cancer. But achieving it is anything but straight-forward or quick.

While a few disease-specific charities focus purely on research – like Cancer Research UK or the Alzheimer’s Research Trust, for example – many were set up because of a need for help right now, in the form of care, information, advice and support. A potential resourcing conflict often arises between care demands and research demands, because of the obvious double-bind such charities find themselves in: how can we not support someone who is facing terrible difficulties today because of this disease? But how can we not invest in wiping out that disease for good, even if that takes generations?

This question of how best to use finite resources is no bad thing, because of course it’s possible for charities to take on both duties, to have ‘twin missions’ of care and research. And when it comes to inspiring donors, each of these aims can be translated into a compelling ask. Give now, we tell our supporters, and we can keep our helpline open, provide a wheelchair for someone, pay for respite. Or, give now, and we can fund more researchers, identify more treatments, bring forward that day in the future when we beat this disease for good.

Is the instant gratification of directly alleviating suffering in the here and now – albeit for a small number of people, even for one individual – a more powerful motivating force for donors than the desire to contribute to a much bigger solution that takes a PhD to understand and years to bring about? And is there a way to create a sense of urgency about both goals, and to bring them together?

According to Newman at CRUK, the trouble with their previous ‘one day’ approach is that ‘it suggests we work and work and nothing really happens until suddenly we find the cure, the pill or the vaccine, and then the job is done. And that’s not how we work, and worse, it seems like an impossible goal: it’s too big and too unbelievable.’

The shift in perspective CRUK asks us to take: from looking out – perhaps years into the future – to noticing what’s happening right now is a significant one. I’m sure other medical research charities, and especially ‘twin mission’ organisations, will be looking on with interest.