She does not seem the sort of woman who would ask a group of 70-year-old pensioners to lie barefoot on a mock-up of a mortuary board and pretend to be dead.

She does not seem the sort of woman who would ask a group of

70-year-old pensioners to lie barefoot on a mock-up of a mortuary board

and pretend to be dead.

Yet that is exactly what Helen Wright, a fresh-faced South Londoner who

is head of Help the Aged’s direct marketing department, has done. With

dramatic consequences.

The resulting press and poster campaign, showing two rows of elderly

feet decorated only with toe tags in a morgue, accompanied by the words

’Thousands of elderly people will stop feeling the cold this winter’,

was unveiled earlier this month.

Designed to increase awareness of the choice the poorest pensioners have

to make between paying for heating or paying to eat, the bleakness of

the image must send a shiver of unease through the most hard-hearted


The shock factor led two national newspapers, The Daily Telegraph and

The Times, to turn down the ad, fearing it could cause distress to

readers with elderly, ill or recently-deceased relatives.

Other media took a different view. With shock tactics, particularly the

case of the Commission for Racial Equality, already in the news,

interest in the ad snowballed. On last Monday alone the plight of

pensioners and/or shock tactic advertising gave Help the Aged coverage

in news bulletins on all five national terrestrial channels, Sky News

and Radio 4’s Today programme.

Wright admits the charity took a conscious decision to tackle public

complacency with a shocking image: ’We did think long and hard about

what we were going to do,’ she says, ’and we knew it would shock, but we

decided that we needed something that would.’ However, she admits the

interest generated has been far greater than they dared anticipate.

Sitting in her untidy office at Help the Aged’s Clerkenwell headquarters

in London, Wright is clearly slightly wary of the media spotlight. She

appears younger than her 31 years, tends to giggle, and her words tumble

out in a rush of nervous enthusiasm with a strong South London lilt.

Yet, when asked to justify her decision to risk offending some older

people in a push for greater awareness for the charity, she remains

steadfast: ’You might think the ad is shocking but the fact that elderly

people die after having to choose between heating or eating is even more

shocking,’ she says, before confessing that she made sure that MPs,

pensioners’ groups and the telephone operators at Help the Aged were

briefed on the ad and the rationale behind it. The girly exterior, it

seems, is mere wallpaper.

’Helen is quite an emotional person, and will have gut reactions to

things and act upon them, but she has a very sound logical approach and

a good background in direct marketing theory,’ says Andrea Hughes,

Wright’s former boss and now senior manager for customer marketing at


Wright joined Help the Aged, on a whim, eight years ago as an

unqualified marketing assistant, after several years of flitting between

administrative jobs and travelling. Six years later she became head of

direct marketing, responsible for a team of 30 people with the job of

acquiring and retaining the donors on whom the charity relies for its


It is no easy task. Although it is one of the UK’s top ten charities,

securing donations of pounds 63m in the past financial year, Help the

Aged faces the challenge that old people are not front of the

charity-giving public’s mind: ’Children, animals, cancer, health all

come first. It makes our life harder, which is why you have to maximise

the consequences,’ says Wright.

The charity is also known within its sector for its conservative nature

and Wright put her reputation on the line in persuading the higher

echelons to run with the campaign. Yet the financial outlay was

comparatively small.

The entire exercise, which including hiring three advans and projecting

the campaign onto the Houses of Parliament, cost just pounds 15,000.

Wright admits that it was mere chance that she ended up working for Help

the Aged. But her eight years in the job have left her committed to a

career in direct marketing and with a fondness for those she is trying

to help.

A chat to the ad agency, Target, reveals that at the shoot for the

campaign, which took place in the Cotswolds, Wright helped the eight

volunteer pensioners remove shoes and socks and washed their feet ready

for the photo.

’They were lovely,’ says Wright, effusive to the end. ’We explained the

concept to them and what we were doing. They had to lie on this board

with a sheet draped over them. But they weren’t shocked, and they knew

what we were trying to do.’



Marketing assistant, Help the Aged


Recruitment co-ordinator, Help the Aged


Marketing manager, committed giving, Help the Aged


Head of direct marketing, Help the Aged


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