Animal Charity Takes A Dive Into DRTV

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After seeing declining returns in its direct mail fundraising, the World Society for the Protection of Animals plans a long-format DRTV campaign in the United States to help the international organization bolster its American membership.

Hosted by actor Tom Skerritt, the 30-minute "docu-mercial" details WSPA efforts to rescue animals from abusive conditions and man-made and natural disasters. Broken into three segments, the show aims to deliver an educational message as well as a call to action to become a WSPA member for a monthly donation of $8.25.

As an incentive, those who register for membership receive a teddy bear and a biannual newsletter.

The charity is new to long-format DRTV, relying until now on direct mail to acquire new members and raise donations. But direct mail results are slumping amid competition from other charities and donor fatigue, said Laura Salter, WSPA's USA director.

"It's been successful for the children's charities in the past," Salter said of DRTV. "We'd like to take our chances and see how well we do."

In addition to soliciting donations, the program shows the suffering of animals in war-torn regions such as the Balkans and urges viewers to make more animal-conscious consumer choices.

For example, a segment on dolphin theme parks features Richard O'Barry, a trainer who worked on the television show "Flipper" and who now works with the WSPA in opposing dolphin captivity. The WSPA urges consumers to avoid theme parks that use dolphins in entertainment.

"The long format allows us to tell dramatic stories that are very powerful," said Craig Walker, president and creative director of Walker & Company Inc., the Los Angeles agency that produced the campaign. "We interrupt the show with calls to action."

Throughout the show, Skerritt acts as guide and host, tying the segments together to create a single feature that resembles a reality-TV program.

"He's the connective tissue," Walker said of Skerritt. "He holds it all together."

Though the WSPA declined to reveal the campaign's budget, Walker noted that the charity, being a nonprofit organization, had to stay cost-conscious at every step. The producers used existing WSPA footage to avoid having to shoot the entire show from scratch, and depended on sympathetic friends to donate or discount services and supplies.

For example, the music in the show was composed for free. A segment dealing with marine mammals was shot partially on a research vessel provided by the University of California-Los Angeles at a discount.

Media buying, being done by Mercury Media, has not been completed, but Walker said he expected the show to run near "sympathetic" programming on national cable channels like Discovery, National Geographic or the Learning Channel, which the WSPA is considering for placement.

While creating the show, producers had to keep in mind the television industry's low tolerance for depictions of animal cruelty, Walker said. Some of the WSPA's archive footage of animal-abuse incidents was too graphic to suit even the cable networks.

"There's a limit to what the typical TV station will allow you to show when it comes to animals," Walker said.

How long the campaign runs depends on how the show tests, and how much in donations it brings to the WSPA. The charity has little experience to make guesses on how long that might be, Salter said.

But if successful, the campaign could expand to the WSPA's international territories, including Canada and Great Britain.

"The TV program is high risk," Salter said. "We're hoping for the best. We have a good product to deliver."


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