Surprise and the odd shock: how Refuge uses advertising

Last week, the charity Refuge, which provides support to women and children who have experienced domestic abuse, released a music video, created by its long-time ad agency, BBH. While this might seem a surprising act from a charity, it makes perfect sense within Refuge’s body of advertising, which has constantly used unexpected approaches to reach audiences.

The video, for the song Grow by Frances, features a beautifully animated story that depicts a young woman who suffers abuse but eventually breaks free. Its message is relatively subtle, up until the end slate, which features an explicit message from Refuge: “When the world can’t see what you’re going through, Refuge can.”

“One of the targets for Refuge’s comms team is to try and reach more young women,” says Lisa King, Refuge’s director of communication, of the strategy behind using a music video as marketing. “Because so many young women are experiencing violence – the figures are alarming – and young people are very hard to reach, they don’t really consume any particular media, they’re very changing in the choices they make. But music is a way you can potentially do that, if you can find the right song with the right focus, you can create something that’s very powerful and hopefully then reach young people in a different way.”

While Grow doesn’t shy away from the harrowing aspects of Refuge’s purpose, not all of the charity’s messaging is about shock. She Lights Up The Night, a charity auction arranged by BBH and featuring new artworks created by artists including Jean Jullien, Siggi Eggertsson and Hattie Stewart (full list at, which takes place in London tomorrow evening, features more uplifting messages of hope and survival.

“It’s about balance,” says King of this mix of messaging. “It’s essentially being able to tell Refuge’s story, which is two parts. First, it’s the harrowing statistics, the 1 in 4 women [suffering abuse], the two women killed every week, the fact that the police receive a domestic violence call every 30 seconds.

“But, then there’s the Refuge story, which is that we provide amazing services, and that when women come to our services, they transform and change lives. [We help give them] the building blocks to start a new life, it’s a very positive story, all about new beginnings and a new future. That’s where the She Lights Up The Night story is told, and it’s great to have an opportunity to focus on that, and the positive work and the life-changing benefits that women receive from our services.”

She Lights Up The Night Refuge
Works from the She Lights Up The Night auction

Refuge, like many other charities, is under particular pressure at present, due to government cuts to funding. With over 80% of its previous funding coming through government sources, Refuge is now relying more on support from individuals. King says that once people fully understand the charity’s work, they are often very responsive, but getting across their purpose can often be a challenge, especially as they are up against so many other causes.

“Competition for money from corporates, from major donors, and from individuals is becoming increasingly competitive,” she says. “And the types of causes that people are interested in, is an interesting element to look at, because of all the causes that exist, women’s focused issues are the least well supported by the public as a whole. It’s really down the pecking order – women are bottom of people’s interest. So it is really challenging.

“Partly that’s to do with the fact that there is still such limited understanding about the prevalence of domestic violence, and its far-reaching nature. And I think the lack of understanding that it’s a societal issue, rather than an individual issue – there is still that belief that it’s a private matter between two partners, it’s behind closed doors, it’s nothing to do with me. But the truth is it’s a societal issue, everyone knows someone who’s affected by domestic violence. It affects all of us as tax payers, costing £16 billion a year at least…. It’s a huge misunderstood issue.”

She Lights Up The Night Refuge
Works from the She Lights Up The Night auction
She Lights Up The Night Refuge
Works from the She Lights Up The Night auction

With no large advertising budget, Refuge and BBH look for opportunities to reach audiences in unexpected ways, which might also generate PR. These have included Jamelia speaking out about her personal domestic abuse experiences on Loose Women, and YouTube star Lauren Luke presenting a make-up session for covering bruises on her online channel (which ended with messaging of how to contact Refuge). King cites the latter as one of the charity’s most successful campaigns.

“It was a new thing to do at the time,” she says. “It was quite a harrowing watch but it was a real insight into day-to-day life for someone who might be experiencing domestic violence…. There was no media budget … they had a great insight and saw that she had this base of supporters who would share and then start to amplify [the message].”

Sometimes support for the charity comes from unexpected sources. The Helen Titchener abuse storyline in the Radio 4 soap The Archers, which played out over a two year period, proved immensely helpful in reaching new audiences. “We had a phenomenal raised awareness and potential new supporters from The Archers,” says King. “It has a 4.2 million daily listenership and it’s very much a middle England listenership base, which is very difficult to get to, both in terms of reaching women who need us and also educating people around the issue more generally.”

The storyline also led to direct financial support after a listener was moved to launch a charity page for ‘the real Helen Titcheners’, with all monies raised going to Refuge. Over 8,000 people donated and more than £200,000 was raised.

King had initially been concerned that listeners might be shut off to the story, but this was far from the case. “It lived out in people’s lives and it became unavoidably obvious what was going on. The power of that story – I’ve worked at Refuge 15 years and I’ve seen nothing in my time as powerful as that, that over a period of time created so much good understanding of a complex issue and created such a raft of support.”

BBH has worked with Refuge for five years on its advertising and, according to King, constantly pushes the charity to use inventive, creative approaches. “We’re a pro bono client, we don’t have any money for any media spend, so we grapple for it,” says King. “We’re never going to cut it like the big players out there with the big advertising budgets, be they charities or corporate partners, so we have to be really clever and really slick about what we do and look at those things that will have a huge success, and just try and do things that are a bit different and will reach people in a non-traditional way. A lot of time and effort goes into that.

“BBH has a great, great depth of knowledge about our issue,” she continues. “It’s complex, they challenge our thinking and make us go the extra mile creatively. Sometimes they want to take it a bit too far, we can’t go that far, but we try and go as far as we can.”

The She Lights Up The Night charity auction for Refuge takes place tomorrow evening (March 30) in London. For more info and to bid for the works online, visit

The post Surprise and the odd shock: how Refuge uses advertising appeared first on Creative Review.


Leave a Reply