Charities balance shock and subtlety in bid for money, hearts and minds

The haunting image of a girl in her underwear cowering on a bed
next to a sleeping man is the latest example of a growing trend for
hard-hitting publicity drives by social care groups.

Above the girl’s prematurely aged face is the slogan of Barnardo’s
latest campaign: “Abuse through prostitution steals children’s

Over the past three years the advertising watchdogs have
investigated complaints about a dozen advertisements for social
care related campaigns. Most of the complaints have been related to
the distressing or shocking nature of the images.

There was a time when photos of angelic if rather dishevelled
children, grateful-looking older people and wholesome families were
used in social care advertisements. The messages were reassuringly

But recent campaigns have featured people who have killed
themselves, older people wishing themselves dead and a baby about
to inject itself with heroin. Two years ago the Committee of
Advertising Practice said that one Barnardo’s advertisement was so
distressing that publishers should not allow it in their

The charity, which has been cleared by the Advertising Standards
Authority following complaints about three advertisements since
1999, is unapologetic about the impact of its advertising.

“We don’t think that being described as ‘hard-hitting’ is a
criticism,” says Rachel Knott, a marketing executive at the

“Advertising that isn’t noticed does not work. We must ensure that
our relatively small budget overachieves by cutting through the
media clutter. The advertisements need to grab attention.”

Ostensibly the advertisements are part of the charity’s campaign to
publicise the fact that children are abused by prostitution. But
Knot says they are also part of its efforts since 1999 “to continue
to build the position of Barnardo’s as a modern, relevant and
deserving charity to maximise our potential for raising funds and
influencing social policy for children”.

It is targeting the advertisements at those in the social group
ABC1 aged 30 to 55. Concerned that its key supporter base is
becoming older, the charity sees this younger target group as
important because they are likely to have children of their own so
will be aware of the issues that are important to Barnardo’s.

The ASA says it gives more leeway for non-commercial organisations
to use shock tactics in their campaigns (see panel above).

“People are more tolerant of a charity that is putting forward
distressing or offensive images that reflect an area of their work
than they would be if they were used to advertise clothes,” says a

Over the past three years the ASA has not upheld any complaints
relating to taste and decency against social care organisations
(see box).

The Charity Commission has few rules surrounding the use of
advertisements as long as the trustees can show that the aim “is
the furtherance of their objectives and have a desired objective in

The vogue for “shocking” advertisements began in the late 1960s and
early 1970s, particularly among overseas aid organisations.

“When an organisation has a small marketing budget shock tactics
will get you noticed,” says Professor Ian Bruce, a marketing expert
and director of the Centre for Voluntary Sector and Not for Profit
Management at City University’s business school.

“But you have to be quite cautious because instead of being shocked
into altering their attitude or behaviour they just switch off.
Shock is a negative reaction. When you are shocked you are seldom
able to learn and absorb. When you are surprised you are prepared
to learn.”

Bruce, now the director general of the Royal National Institute for
the Blind, says social care organisations must tailor the tone and
style of the campaign to their target audience.

“Advertising is a blunderbuss. If you use a shocking advert for a
target audience you will sometimes get an adverse reaction from the
peripheral audience,” he warns.

Larger organisations have the funds and expertise to choose the
most suitable image for their target audience – and sometimes a
hard-hitting advertisement will work. But simply attempting to
shock a general audience could cause more harm than good.

The RNIB campaign being launched this month is designed to make
people think about the possibility of becoming blind or partially
sighted. The content of the advertisements is designed to surprise
rather than shock. The campaign is targeted at ABC1 and C2 women
aged 35 to 65.

One of the most talked about television advertisements this year
has been run by the NSPCC. The distressing nature of the “Real
children don’t bounce back” advertisement, which featured the
violent abuse of a cartoon boy, means it can only be shown after
the 9pm watershed.

The Independent Television Commission received 127 complaints about
the advert but did not uphold any of them.

Keith Bradbrook, head of media at the NSPCC, says: “We believe that
we have struck the right balance with this campaign. It shows the
seriousness of the issue and makes people want to do something if
they have concerns for a child.”

The charity is delighted by the response. Calls to its child
protection helpline have doubled and research by its advertising
agency, Saatchi and Saatchi, shows that 86 per cent of people who
saw the campaign are more aware that they should do something if
they have worries about the well-being of a child.

Bradbrook dismisses suggestions that social care organisations
simply use provocative campaigns to create newspaper

“There is no point in shocking people unless you succeed in
conveying an image,” he says. “If you don’t convey a message, what
is the point of spending hundreds of thousands of pounds in
advertising and then having to rely on some dubious back door way
of generating controversy?”

Later this month the NSPCC will demonstrate this approach with the
launch of a new campaign on child deaths. The advertisements will
not feature pictures of children’s corpses, but will take a more
subtle and, it hopes, thought-provoking approach to the

ASA’s Rules for non-commercial adverts

  • All advertisers have to be legal, decent, honest and truthful
    in their advertising.
  • Non-commercial advertisers such as charities, pressure groups
    and trade unions are allowed some leeway when their subject matter
    justifies a shocking approach, but this does not give them carte
    blanche to offend.
  • While adverts can express opinions, any claims presented as
    fact must be supported by documentary evidence.
  • Charities and pressure groups must follow the British Codes of
    Advertising and Self Promotion such as those on decency, fear and
    distress, exploitation, violence and advertisements featuring
  • The choice of medium and audience will be considered when
    assessing whether an advert is likely to cause undue offence,
    particularly where children may find the images distressing.

The ads that shocked

Complaints not upheld

Age Concern England: Distraught-looking older man. “I’d rather be
dead than spend another Christmas on my own”. Complaint:

Barnardo’s: Child about to jump off a building. “Martin Ward, Age
29. Made to feel worthless as a child”. Complaint:

Barnardo’s: Series of adverts showing bodies of adults who have
killed themselves because of abuse and neglect in childhood.
Complaints: offensive and distressing.

Barnardo’s: Baby about to inject heroin. “John Donaldson Age 23”.
Complaints: shocking and offensive.

Leicestershire Council: “Anyone can become a foster carer. It takes
six months to qualify”. Complaint: misleading.

NSPCC: Circular with child-like writing saying: “Help me please,”
and “I just don’t want to be hit anymore”. Complaint:

Complaints upheld

Chester Council: Claim that 50 per cent of women experience serious
sexual assault and that abuse was commonplace. Complaints: claim

Merseyside Zero Tolerance Initiative for Women and Children: “Over
95 per cent of adult sex abusers of children are male”. Complaints:
irresponsible, offensive, distressing.

Scottish executive: “One in five women in Scotland live with the
constant fear of domestic abuse”. Complaint: claim

Unison: Claim that 50,000 care homes had closed and that private
companies run public services for their own profit. Complaints:
inaccurate, unfair, offensive and likely to cause undue fear and

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