Case Study: Be Careful What You Cut


The Children’s Defense Fund 

Project Title

Be Careful What You Cut: Informing the Public About Budget Cuts that Affect Children


In October 2011, there was a heated debate raging in Congress about our national debt. What programs should be cut? Should we raise revenues? To help determine how to cut trillions of dollars in government spending, a 12-member Congressional “Super Committee” was asked to pull together a thoughtful recommendation. Ultimately, it was a conversation about national priorities: defense or childcare, tax breaks or health care? And the truth was that programs critical to health, welfare and education of children were easy targets. These programs—especially those aimed at poor children—were genuinely at risk.

The Children’s Defense Fund (CDF) reached out to Fallon to help spark a call to Congress to do right by our children. They asked us to create an advertising campaign to mobilize people who care about kids to contact their leaders and demand specific programs be protected. To support this effort, we created “Be Careful What You Cut,” a set of three print ads, a microsite and a Facebook and Twitter embed application that allowed the public to overlay their existing profile picture with a childhood photo.

The program sought to actively involve viewers and relied heavily upon these viewers sharing information via their social media platforms, as well as alternate routes. The microsite,, urged viewers to use our infographics for their Facebook cover photos, petition their members of Congress and send information to local media.


For the past 25 years, Fallon has partnered with the Children's Defense Fund on a pro bono basis, with 100 percent of Fallon time donated at no cost. The development of the entire suite of campaign elements was under $40,000 (including three print ads, a “Be Careful What You Cut” microsite, a Twitter application and a Facebook application with supporting cover art).


At the onset of this project, we looked for the most persuasive rationale for protecting children's programs. We learned in our research that, in order to bring light to the issue and cut through the clutter, it was imperative that we make a fiscal case, not just an emotional case.

We were also able to use our client’s research and reports, including Children’s Defense Fund Report, “The State of America’s Children 2011” and “Children’s Defense Fund Memorandum to Pat Fallon and Fred Senn, July 26, 2011.”


This campaign was designed to bring to life the real economic danger of cutting children's programs. We wanted to inspire Congress, taxpayers and others who care about kids to mobilize and demand that these programs be protected. 

Using instantly provocative visuals, we sought to literally demonstrate the repercussions of cutting children's funds. With one image, we illustrated how cutting programs from kids today could drastically alter their lives in the future—not to mention costing the country more money in the long run.

The look of the ads was very deliberate. They needed to create an immediate impact and emotional connection with the viewer. To that end, we set out to make the main visual of the adult look rather grim and depressing. The muted tones are meant to indicate a hard life, devoid of joy or optimism. The entire look of the main visual is meant to signify that all hope is lost.

To contrast this harsh imagery, we photographed the babies' faces featured in the same ads to be almost overly angelic, beautiful. The idea there was to show that these children still have a bright future ahead of them—as long as they get the help they need. The dissonance of these two styles of imagery is meant to visually convey the plight of these kids and visually depict the tension that faces today’s children. We wanted the viewer to realize the serious threat to these kids and that, if they don’t get the help they need, these bright, young, innocent children will face a bleak adult future.

Each ad focuses on one intended cut by Congress—Medicaid, early education, and the Earned Income Tax Credit—and those who could be affected. The text at the bottom informs the viewer of the possible effects—both in terms of immediate impact on the subject and future costs for the public. For instance, in the ad featuring a pregnant woman, the ad warns:

When it comes to fixing the deficit, be careful what you cut. Cutting just $4,000 of Medicaid and food stamps from a girl in a low-income family negatively impacts her health and nutrition in the future. This can lead to poor performance in school, which increases her chances of getting pregnant as a teenager. And paying for teen pregnancies costs the rest of us $10 billion a year. Learn more about the high costs of cutting at 

Collectively, we created a set of three print ads, a microsite and a Facebook and Twitter embed application that allowed the public to overlay their existing profile picture with a childhood photo.

With a minimal budget, it was imperative that we created something that was easily sharable to help us spread the word. The microsite,, and the Children's Defense Fund Facebook page helped serve this purpose. We offered supporters nine colorful and attention-grabbing Facebook cover photos that used infographics to explain the staggering statistics that would occur if programs were cut. We asked that they petition their members of Congress with a pre-written, customizable letter to their Senator or representative—they simply needed to fill out their contact information. We also made it easy for the viewers to send information to their local print publications through downloadable op-ed documents and letters to the editor. Our three ads were available for download so that the viewer could ask for donated space.


Because this was a pro bono assignment, our biggest challenge was to keep costs as low as possible. It was imperative that we find a great photographer who was hungry to do great work but who wouldn't break the bank. We also needed to find models who fit our campaign without incurring pricey talent fees. The resulting ads had to be instantly believable, making a real impact and inspiring people to act. 

Thankfully, we were able to connect with a wonderful photographer who supported our efforts and provided services at a discounted rate. For models, we decided to seek out “regular” people around Minneapolis and shoot them in nearby areas. For example, we hired a homeless man who was living on the street and was willing to be part of the campaign. 


From a creative perspective, we consider the design effective because the "cut marks" are instantly iconic and allow a viewer to easily understand that children are in trouble and need help in the form of consumer-based action. More importantly, we were able to find the delicate balance we needed—employing arresting visuals while still maintaining the look that Children’s Defense Fund has been famous for for 25 years. Their ads have always been known for bold, impactful visuals that instantly grab the viewer and minimal copy that drives the point of the visual home. It was important for us to honor this tradition, and luckily, we were able to devise a concept that allowed us to do so. 

This case study is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.