ASA Adjudication on Barnardos
20 February 2008
Number of complaints:
A direct mailing, for Barnardo's, included a letter written by 'Claire', a sexual exploitation project worker and stated "WARNING - Contains sensitive material - not suitable for children ... I hope you will forgive me for writing today anonymously and for describing some deeply troubling issues which I know are upsetting ... the children I work with are victims of sexual exploitation. Boys and girls sometimes as young as 11 years old who are manipulated and abused - often by people they love and trust - and then sexually exploited ... Please will you send us £150 to help us protect vulnerable children from the horror of sexual exploitation? ... The life of one victim, whom I shall call 'Marie', was ruined when she and her best friend were gang raped by Marie's uncle and his friends when they were just nine years old. As Marie told a Barnardo's colleague: 'They made me sit and watch as they did the same thing to my mate and then they took us to one of their houses and made me do it again and again'". The mailing also included a copy of a handwritten extract from the diary of 'Marie', which described what had happened to her.
The complainant, who said the mailing had been sent to his 89-year-old mother-in-law, challenged whether the mailing was offensive, distressing and unsuitable for an unsolicited mailing, particularly because it contained descriptions of sexual abuse which he considered were overly graphic.
CAP Code (Edition 11)
Barnardo's said they recruited new donors via a cold cash appeal every November. They said the mailing had been sent to 54,000 prospective donors and they hoped to re-use it in November 2008. They said out of those 54,000 recipients only one person had complained to the ASA and only three people had complained to them direct. They said in their view that did not constitute widespread offence. They said, by contrast, they had processed donations from more than 300 new supporters from the appeal.
Barnardos said they were committed to portraying their work in an honest and factual way so that supporters would be able to gain an insight into the work they did and how their money would be spent. They said the case study referred to in the mailing was the story of a real girl, supported by a Barnardo's project in Southampton, who had been abused by her uncle and gang raped at the age of nine. They said that story was, unfortunately, representative of the children with who they worked. They said their work with children and young people was always challenging and sometimes disturbing. Although that reality could be upsetting, they said they never exaggerated the story a child had told them and as such merely conveyed the truth of their work to potential donors.
They said sexual exploitation was a difficult and sensitive issue and 'Marie's' case study was hard hitting. They said they had recognised that and therefore gave recipients three opportunities to stop reading if they wished to. They pointed out that the title of the mailing gave a warning about the sensitive nature of its contents and later paragraphs provided warnings about the specific subject matter. Barnardo's maintained that the mailing did not include graphic details of the rape. They said the diary extract did include more information about it but they were mindful of the sensitive nature of the story and therefore did not replicate the diary in its entirety and omitted some of the more graphic and shocking entries. They said although the mailing referred to "being held down" and mentioned rape more than once, no further details were mentioned. They believed that did not constitute a graphic description. They also pointed out that they had chosen not to use any images in the mailing.
They said the subject matter featured in the mailing was very much within the public domain and pointed out that stories about sexual exploitation and rape regularly appeared in national newspapers, television news, documentaries and other TV programmes.
Barnardo's said that because the subject matter was very serious and sensitive they had limited their use of the case study to direct mail so that that they could keep full control over the target audience. They said they undertook extensive research to ensure that they selected an audience that was likely to be interested in children. They said they profiled existing supporters and selected lists of people who reflected their current supporter profile. They said their most recent supporter profile showed that 66% of donors were female and 75% were over 55 years old. They said they therefore targeted their mailings accordingly. They said the people on the list used for the campaign were predominantly female with an age bias of 45 to 65. They said all of the lists they used for the campaign contained people within an age range of between 35 years and 70 years and they therefore did not actively target anyone over the age of 70 years. They also pointed out that, via their list selection, they were able to ensure that no minors received their cash appeals.
The ASA noted Barnardos had selected a target audience for the mailing that was representative of their supporter profile and had not actively targeted recipients over the age of 70. We noted, however, that the recipient had been an 89-year-old woman and the targeting had not been accurate on that occasion.
We noted the top of the mailing stated "WARNING: Contains sensitive material - not suitable for children" and that the first paragraph of the letter made clear that its content was likely to be upsetting. We considered that was sufficient to alert recipients to the potential for them to be distressed or offended by the mailings content. We noted the intention of the mailing was to draw attention to the issue of sexual exploitation of children and the work that Barnardos did in that area and we considered that recipients were likely to consider that the distressing nature of the content was relevant and appropriate given that context.
Because Barnardos had taken steps to target their mailing, and had included warnings about the potentially upsetting content, we concluded that it was unlikely to cause serious or widespread offence, or cause undue fear or distress.
We investigated the mailing under CAP Code clauses 2.2 (Responsible advertising), 5.1 (Decency) and 9.1 (Fear and distress) but did not find it in breach.
No further action necessary.
Adjudication of the ASA Council (Non-broadcast)