Skip to main content

What happened when we took on Facebook (and won)

4 December 2015

When we launched our ‘See the need’ campaign at RNIB, the last thing we expected was for Facebook to ban the ad. 

At RNIB, we’re only too aware that for people with no experience of sight loss, it’s hard to imagine it happening to them. That’s why when we launched our recent ‘See the need’ campaign, to demand dedicated sight loss advisers in every UK eye department, we knew we had to be bold. 

Thousands of people every year are being left to deal with their diagnosis without adequate help and support and we wanted members of the public to feel the same outrage that we do. We set out to represent the story that has been told to us by hundreds of people who have just been told they’re going blind; that they’re scared of what the future holds. 

How negative is too negative? 

We never expected our campaign video to be banned by Facebook. Featuring a simple close-up shot of a woman whose face visibly crumbles as she is told she is going blind, the video is simple and powerful. The voiceover says ‘this is the moment your doctor says you’re losing your sight…you’ll fear for your job, your home, your life’. 

According to Facebook’s ad team, content ‘must present realistic and accurate information in a neutral or positive way and should not have any direct attribution to people’. 

We knew we couldn’t ignore this ban and we had to react quickly. With a relatively small advertising budget, Facebook has proved highly effective for us in the past by allowing us to engage new audiences. Without reaching people via Facebook, we would not be talking to the audience the campaign was aimed at. 

It also raised another puzzling question for us. Facebook’s policy seems to call into question the tried and tested charity technique of asking people to put themselves in someone else’s shoes for a moment. What would this decision mean, not only for our future campaigns, but for how charities communicate with audiences on Facebook? 

Taking on Facebook

After failing to reach a resolution with Facebook’s ad team, we offered the Guardian the story on an exclusive basis. Within hours of the story going live it had been shared thousands of times and attracted dozens of comments. By the end of the day the story had appeared on several major news outlets including BBC World Service, Metro, The Telegraph and The Independent

The coverage undoubtedly boosted the campaign, with more than 5,000 additional views delivered in just a day. Within 24 hours, Facebook apologised and accepted it had made a mistake by banning the advert. 

It was a bold move; we knew the story could bring the campaign into the spotlight but what if everyone agreed with Facebook’s decision? 

Thankfully, the feedback was overwhelmingly positive. While indignation at Facebook’s approach was the overriding theme of the debate, most of the commentators watched our video and hundreds went on to visit our website to find out more and support the campaign. 

There’s no such thing as bad publicity? 

A small proportion of the online comments were negative and we received around a dozen complaints from blind and partially people which were, quite honestly, rather painful to read. No one wants to hear that the campaign your whole team has put their blood, sweat and tears into is ‘bland’, ‘boring’ and a ‘PR failure’ which made one viewer feel ‘nauseous, uncomfortable and miserable’ – not exactly the response we were going for. 

As professional communicators, I think we’d all agree that there IS such a thing as bad publicity. But I think we’ve perhaps become over-sensitised to what ‘bad’ actually is. 

This is only one of the many stories RNIB will tell. At RNIB, we work on behalf of people who have been blind since birth, people who lost their sight many years ago and people who are losing their sight now. We would never attempt to tell all of those stories in one go, it simply wouldn’t be possible. 

And so we must accept that in every bold and powerful marketing and communications campaign, there will be people who think we’ve done a bad job, no matter how much time and effort we put into research. 

But we can’t let that stop us; debate is good. After all, I’d rather have people talking about our campaign than not at all. Maybe they’ll like the next one more. 

Natasha Dickinson

group head of marketing and communications, RNIB

Natasha Dickinson is group head of marketing and communications at RNIB, where she’s worked since 2012. Before that, Natasha worked for Cancer Research UK where she headed up the marketing and communications of the charity’s mass participation fundraising portfolio, including Race for Life, Relay for Life, Run 10K and she launched the night walking event Shine.