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Red Nose Day has become a cross-platform, donation-minting, pop cultural holiday

Since its launch in 2015, the comedy-based day of giving for children’s issues has exploded, and now includes partnerships that range from TV shows to streaming Gamers to TikTok to Alexa.

Red Nose Day has become a cross-platform, donation-minting, pop cultural holiday
[Photo: courtesy Comic Relief USA]

In late April 2019, fans of television singing competition The Voice tuned to see something truly unexpected on one episode: Host Caron Daly and celebrity judges Kelly Clarkson, John Legend, Adam Levine, and Blake Shelton struggling to keep a straight face while wearing oversized red, bulbed noses. Daly’s was plain red. The other four were even decorated to look like emoji characters.

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As Daily explained to the audience, these props all had names. The plain one was Red, while others went by Rusty, Ruby, Rojo, and Scarlet. But what exactly was going on? “It’s that time of year again,” Daly said. “It’s a huge NBC television event, it’s Red Nose Day, it’s returning May 23, and it’s important.” The emoji part of the gimmick was new, but celebs wearing red noses for a cause actually isn’t. At this point, it’s almost expected it to feel familiar.

(Left to right) Kelly Clarkson, Chrissy Teigen, John Legend, Adam Levine. [Photos: courtesy Comic Relief USA]

Since it was imported to the U.S. from England in 2015, Red Nose Day has evolved into both a major charitable holiday specifically battling childhood poverty and a pop cultural phenomenon. Each year, in mid-April, Walgreens and Duane Reade stores start selling funny red noses for $2 a piece. All of those proceeds go to The Red Nose Day Fund, managed by Comic Relief USA, an independent nonprofit that shares a name and mission with a longer running U.K. group that for three decades has done its own version of this event. Then in late May, Comcast NBCUniversal airs a block of Red Nose Day branded prime-time programming featuring things like game show takeovers and different funny yet socially minded segments about the cause. That event encourages viewers to call or text in more donations that the fund will redistribute to charities already working on the childhood issue.

[Photo: courtesy Comic Relief USA]

Over the last four years, that format has helped raise $150 million for children in poverty, in part because people who buy the noses can post their own selfies and feel like they’re in on the act. For the 2019 event, the nonprofit released five variations of its classic red nose (now dubbed Red). For kids, each one has a super power: For instance, Rojo, who sports a mask and mustache, can fly to quickly deliver vaccines and medicines. Collect them all, post a pic with #HeroHighFive on social media, and you too might appear on-screen during a NBC special tribute. “We’ve launched very much with this very unique proposition to make it fun to make a difference,” says Comic Relief USA CEO Janet Scardino. “And the idea of leveraging the power of entertainment for positive change.”

The fundraiser earned $23 million in its first year. Comic Relief USA did not have ratings information immediately available, but the cross-promotion has previously involved top hits like American Ninja Warrior and, this year, Jane Lynch’s Hollywood Game Night featuring A-list contestants like Kenan Thompson and Kristen Bell.

Bill Gates [Photo: Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation]
Obviously there’s a halo effect for all of the people and corporate partners involved. That includes a deal with Mars Wrigley Confectionery to sell specially branded M&Ms packages (the company’s classic M&M shaped mascots also sport red noses) at Walgreens, and an alliance with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation for more funding and programming assistance. But this year Red Nose Day’s promotional tie-ins have gotten even more experimental and omnipresent.

Microsoft now sells its own contribution-generating subscriptions to Xbox passes (a subscription service to play more games), but also allows players to redeem previously earned reward points as donations, and sponsors in-game quests that can trigger more money releases. The video sharing service TikTok launched a virtual “Joke-Ha-Thon” where uploaded quips tagged #RedNoseDay unlock more donations. That’s not to be confused with the school-related joke-a-thon powered by Scholastic and presented by Kate McKinnon, which is aimed at teachers who want to educate their students about child poverty and the importance of empathy, and then enlist them to fundraise by getting adults to pay to hear their best one-liners.

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Recognizing that not everyone loves telethons, Comic Relief USA also worked with the online donation service Tiltify to allow YouTube influencers and Twitch gamers to embed donation buttons into their livestreams. The group ran its first-ever Nose Bowl, an ongoing online livestream that pitted celebrities and influencers head-to-head in karaoke battles or brainteaser competition games, some of which required viewers to vote, participate, or contribute online to decide the outcome.

And on the day of the TV special, anyone saying “Good Morning, Alexa” will trigger a robo-pitch for voice-activated giving from Amazon. (“My light ring may be blue, but today I’m thinking about red–in support of Red Nose Day….”) Once someone says they want to give to Red Nose Day, the service will use Amazon Pay to run the transaction against whatever billing info is already on file. “I think charities are a great way to test and learn,” Scardino says. “We would love to be top of mind for innovative companies big and small to work with us and innovate even more ways for people to give back.”

The organization splits all donations 50/50 between domestic and international aid groups, including Covenant House, Feeding America, Save The Children, and UnidosUS. The goal is to ensure that children everywhere are healthy, hungry, sheltered, and able to gain access to a proper education. Covenant House, for instance provides food, shelter, and crisis services for homeless, runaway, and trafficked children in 31 cities across six countries. Save the Children builds schools and supports educational services around the world and delivers supplies and medical aid to communities hurt by everything from armed conflict to natural disasters.

Over the last four years, Comic Relief USA claims the Red Nose Day Fund has assisted more than 16 million children in the both the U.S. and Puerto Rico, and throughout Latin America, Africa, and Asia. The organization estimates that during its first four years between 88% and 93% of all money raised annually went toward cause work. “We’re really specifically focused on children, the most vulnerable children here in the U.S. and internationally,” Scardino says.

[Photo: courtesy Comic Relief USA]

“We’re the startup,” she says about the U.S. version, compared to the more established U.K. edition. As such, she tries to maintain that mentality. The original organization was founded in the United Kingdom in 1985 after cofounder Richard Curtis became inspired by the success of the global music concert series Live Aid in fundraising to fight famine in Ethiopia. A few years later, Curtis, a comedy screenwriter, eventually approached the BBC about a Red Nose Day comedy special strategically timed for the region’s dreary month of March. “Richard likes to say it was the worst time of the year, and therefore a great time to have some joy, and for people to really come together by doing fun and funny things in the name of a good cause,” adds Scardino.

After going on to develop Hollywood hits like Four Weddings and a Funeral and Love Actually, Curtis finally decided to use his fame and friends start a U.S. version of the event. The group picked a different month to solicit, one which also made it stand apart from most U.S. groups, who choose the winter holidays for their biggest fundraising push. “For us, we looked at the calendar and saw this great opportunity between Easter and Memorial Day [with ] Mother’s Day graduations, the kickoff to the summer. It’s been a great natural place for us to raise awareness of this really silent crisis of child poverty here in America and internationally.” Although the groups have different operational structures, Curtis remains involved with both: This year, he scripted a five-minute “mini-sequel” to Four Weddings for NBC called One Red Nose Day and a Wedding with most of the original actors reprising their roles.

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Comic Relief USA estimates 60% of Americans are aware of Red Nose Day, and at least one in five have done something to support it within the last 12 months. “A big priority for us is frictionless giving,” Scardino says. “Our desire is to truly be this gateway of giving. And in order to do that, we have to appeal to all ages. And we think that the Red Nose has this incredible ability to bring people together, as we like to say, to end child poverty, one nose at a time.”

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About the author

Ben Paynter is a senior writer at Fast Company covering social impact, the future of philanthropy, and innovative food companies. His work has appeared in Wired, Bloomberg Businessweek, and the New York Times, among other places.

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