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12-year-old Anisa Ashe, an ongoing care patient at SickKids for Larsen syndrome, is among those children featured in the Foundation’s flashy new advertising campaign.


A neon light shatters. In a shadowy room, a boxer throws his weight into a punch. A lion roars. Rapid-fire images tick by to a thumping hip hop soundtrack.

If this does not look like your typical charity ad for a children's hospital, that is precisely the point. The newest campaign for the SickKids Foundation launching this week, is meant to reach an audience it hasn't spoken to before.

"We're looking to transform SickKids from a cause brand to a performance brand – what we'd classically see in the Nikes or the Under Armours of the world," said Jay Chaney, chief strategy officer at advertising agency Cossette, which created the new ads.

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It seems like a strange time for the charity to change course, since it has just had two record years for donations. SickKids Foundation spends roughly three-quarters of its marketing budget at this time of year as we approach holiday giving season.

Two years ago, it unveiled an unprecedented campaign that filmed patients documentary-style inside the hospital, showing a different ad featuring one of their stories every day for 45 days. The highly emotional campaign raised $37-million in December, 2014, its biggest month ever. Last year, it revisited those stories to give updates on how those children were doing one year later: Those ads led to another record, $38-million in donations last December.

But the vast majority of that growth did not come from new donors – it came largely from an existing base who were giving more. That's why a new tone is necessary, to reach new donors.

"The size of the pie is not changing in Canada, in terms of philanthropy." said Lori Davison, vice-president of brand strategy for the foundation. "Our opportunity to grow our share is by tapping into new audiences. … We're not going to get to a new level of giving – and new people – by reminding people of what they already know."

The most recent numbers from Statistics Canada are a few years old, but they reinforce the trends that SickKids says it is still seeing: The total dollar amount given to charities and non-profits grew by 14 per cent between 2010 and 2013, but the overall number of donors actually fell; and those who do donate are aging.

SickKids is continuing to speak to its core base of donors (aged roughly 35 to 59, skewing female) by buying ad space in television shows that tend to reach those audiences, and continuing to advertise heavily on social media. But it is also attempting a broader reach, with media that will be seen by both younger people and men. Its TV ad will debut on Saturday night during the broadcast of the Toronto Maple Leafs home opener, for example.

"It was like a movie, and like a fantasy I'd like to live," said Anisa Ashe, a 12-year-old patient whose story was one of those featured in the campaign two years ago, and who participated again this year.

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She was discussing a scene some children filmed for this ad with actors playing knights and vikings, charging through a field as if into battle. Anisa has Larsen syndrome, which causes dislocated joints, and has been in ongoing care at SickKids.

"Doing the gladiator thing was fun. I like how we're breaking free."

Another child who filmed the scene that day was nine-year-old Ella Goldberg, who went through extensive reconstructive surgery at the hospital after she was thrown from a horse at summer camp last year.

"It's good for people that are sick or have some sort of injury like I did, it's showing how strong they are," she said.

"This is a child that a little over a year ago refused to even look at herself in the mirror," Ella's mom, Terri, said. "And now, she will be on a giant billboard. And she's really excited about it."

As flashy as the new commercial looks – and as much as it strives for a Nike-type image – that does not reflect the marketing budget, which has not grown. The ad agency, editors and other production partners, and the director all did the work pro bono.

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However, the fight-fight tone of the main television ad does not mean SickKids is going for relentless positivity. There is a break in the action to show real-life scenes of heartbreak in the hospital, including crying parents and crash carts, to remind audiences of the reality of the hospital's work.

There is also a second ad featuring Grace Bowen, a cancer patient who was seen in the campaign two years ago, and who has since died. The ad emphasizes that children like Grace continue to inspire researchers and – in the case of those who have donated organs for research and to save others – to contribute to the fight in their own way.

The foundation began experimenting last year with acknowledging children who had died in some of its social-media posts, but this is the first time it has made such a patient the focus of a television ad. It is a potentially powerful shift, particularly for families who have experienced a loss and do not see themselves represented in the victory-over-illness language that can dominate charity marketing.

"It's an important part of the story," Ms. Davison said.

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