ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis), also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, is an incurable disease of the nervous system. As the disease progresses, the patient’s muscles stop working, one by one. Being diagnosed with ALS is considered a death sentence because no cure exists and most patients die within three years of diagnosis. Scientific research is needed because the cause is still largely unknown, but the pharmaceutical industry invests little in disease that kills in such a relatively short amount of time.
The ALS FoundationNetherlandswas determined to increase donations used to fund medical research on the disease and possible cures. Starcom had two challenges: They needed to give a face to this deadly disease, and then find a way around the fact that the Foundation had no advertising budget whatsoever.
Given the relative unfamiliarity with ALS in the Netherlands, the lack of solid corporate support and no money to support the campaign, Starcom decided to create a strong, confrontational campaign that would bring the cause front and center. The agency decided to ask ALS patients and their loved ones to serve as ambassadors for the Foundation. As part of a secret project, nine ALS patients participated in a photo and video shoot, talking simply and frankly about the disease, and asking for donations to the Foundation. The message they provided?
“Support the ALS Foundation Netherlands. But not for me, I have already died.”
Joep Cobben, who was diagnosed with ALS in September 2009, asked viewers this message with the understanding that by the time it could air, he would have already died. As the first of nine recorded messages, it provided a shocking truism that people who are diagnosed with ALS can transition from nearly normal to death in only a short time. The effect was provocative, poignant and profound.
With no budget, Starcom needed to convince media companies to donate space and time for the campaign. Some found the concept shocking and would not participate, but most media outlets found the information eye-opening and agreed not only to run the ads, but also to help procure editorial mentions as well. The first ad began running two weeks after Mr. Cobben passed away and the campaign launched in a feature on the SBS national television news as part of a larger story about ALS and the campaign.
The story was so compelling that instead of having to ask for free media, the team found itself deluged with requests for interviews, from media outlets eager to cover the campaign. Subsequent talk shows, magazine and newspaper stories featured family members and some of those patients who had filmed ads but were still alive to talk about the disease.
On the heels of this forthright, powerful campaign, the ALS Foundation not only met its goal of increased awareness but also benefited from a surge in donations for research. Six months after the campaign broke, awareness of ALS in The Netherlands had risen from 62% to 81%. Donations were up 500%. A special bonus was the unexpected participation of Princess Maxima, the most-loved member of the Dutch royal family, who saw the campaign and then participated in a fundraising event—a September 2012 swimming contest through the canals of Amsterdam. That event alone raised 700,000 EUR for the Foundation.
This campaign is considered a true success in raising the profile of ALS in the Netherlands. While a result of this magnitude in most campaigns would be cause for celebration, it only shows how far we must go to find a cure. This campaign and the message it contains can and will continue until there is no one left to tell the world “I have already died.”