The Heart of Storytelling: The American Red Cross Lets Real People Tell Their Stories

With its new Storytellers campaign, The American Red Cross gives a voice–and a camera–to the people who have been helped by the organization.

The Heart of Storytelling: The American Red Cross Lets Real People Tell Their Stories

A New Yorker whose home was ravaged by Hurricane Sandy, a Michigan teenager whose Red Cross CPR training helped him save a man’s life, an Oklahoma family who lost their home in a tornado. These are just a few of the people featured in a powerful new campaign from The American Red Cross.


What makes the new Storytellers documentary-style campaign unique is that there was no script and no director. The American Red Cross enlisted 300 storytellers–people who were helped by the Red Cross–to tell their story in their own words and to film themselves while doing so. The idea was inspired by the documentary “Life in a Day.”

More than 130 years old, The American Red Cross is one of the most recognized brands worldwide. But the nonprofit organization found that the public is largely unaware of the breadth of the work it does outside of major disasters such as Hurricane Sandy or blood collection drives. In fact, The American Red Cross responds to nearly 70,000 disasters every year.

The Red Cross enlisted agency BBDO New York to develop an advertising concept that would convey this message. It immediately became clear that the most effective way to educate people about the mission of The Red Cross was to let the people who have been helped the most by the organization speak for themselves.

“Every time we started to talk about an ad campaign, we worried that it felt a little contrived or boastful,” explains Linda Honan, senior creative director at BBDO New York. “We found that the purest way to push the story out was to have the people whose lives have been touched tell their story. It was about stepping aside and giving people the tools to share their story.”

After reviewing more than 1,200 stories that were submitted online, BBDO selected 300 individuals from 23 states to participate in the campaign. They then sent each storyteller a kit containing a camera, film, a booklet with tips about how to tell their story, and a journal to chronicle their experience. To support the cause, FedEx donated the mailing and Sony donated the cameras (which participants get to keep).

The challenge was editing the 250 hours of footage down to 25 edited films to be featured in the campaign. “Every story is an absolutely real representation of what was sent to us,” says Dave Rolfe, Director of Integrated Production, BBDO New York. “We felt it was important to let the stories speak for themselves.”


Three of the short films will air as paid ads and/or PSAs and all of them will be distributed through The American Red Cross’s social media platforms. Short-film director and documentarian Eliot Rausch produced the stories.

“Some of the most amazing moments in the videos were when someone was alone and set up the camera and spoke directly to the camera,” says Rolfe. “That was some of the most riveting footage we got.”

The participating individuals and families will receive a copy of their story, which they will be encouraged to share via their own social media networks.

“The process of storytelling is part of the service the Red Cross provides,” explains Honan. “Talking about the things you’ve been through is cathartic, aiding in the healing process. When you’ve lived through such trauma, the Red Cross brings hope.”

The American Red Cross is asking people to share their personal stories at its website.

About the author

Paula Bernstein has written about television, film, advertising, and technology for Fast Company, Variety, The Hollywood Reporter, Adweek, Babble, and various other digital and print publications.