In July 2012, the ASA published research into the issues relating to harm and offence in advertising. The feedback from participants was, to a degree, unexpected. Charity and public service ads were cited spontaneously as those which were likely to cause offence or distress – in fact, the majority of children we spoke with mentioned charity ads as those which had upset or bothered them or their siblings most recently. But what were the specific issues that arose, how serious were they, and will they result in a shift in the way the ASA deals with complaints in this area?

Charities can have a challenging job explaining the nature of the important, and often sensitive, work they do in a way that educates, but doesn’t distress, their audience. While many people report a powerful and sometimes negative reaction to these types of ads, conversely, many feel that the worthwhile nature of the charities mean that greater scope should be afforded to them to use hard hitting themes and images.

In summary, the ASA’s research revealed adults objected that charity ads:

- can go too far in their portrayal of violence, suffering or hardship
- often make people feel guilty or uncomfortable in a way they considered inappropriate
- [that are graphic] are distressing and even offensive
- [graphic/shocking ads] are particularly problematic if encountered unexpectedly or repeated excessively
- targeted their children (in particular animal welfare ads) and put pressure on parents to donate money or do something about the issue
- appear on children’s channels
- prompted children to ask parents to adopt pets from shelters
- affected children emotionally or led to conversations that were not necessarily age-appropriate

Adults supported charity ads because:
- they need to attract people’s attention to be effective
- worthwhile aims should be allowed more scope to trigger a strong emotional response

Children were bothered by charity ads because:
- they found the content upsetting and distressing
- they felt upset because they were helpless to make a difference to the situation portrayed
- they upset their younger siblings

To ensure these concerns are being adequately reflected in ASA rulings, it took the decision to look closely at the complaints received about the charity sector over the last three years to see if it is drawing the line in the right place. This confirmed that charity ads have the capacity to provoke an emotional response in some viewers and that some consider that TV ads on children’s channels or around programming are inappropriate.

Beyond this, the ASA also looked at the juxtaposition of children’s programming and charity ads and consulted with the Incorporated Association of British Advertisers (ISBA) and the Institute of Practitioners in Advertising (IPA) for their views on the research findings. Overall, the number of complaints received about ads in this sector is low and the scheduling restrictions applied to TV ads seem to be doing a good job in ensuring unsuitable content is kept well away from children, suggesting that the ASA is drawing the line in the right place and that ads are currently, on the whole, appropriately scheduled.

But, given the strength of feeling reported by participants in the Harm and Offence research, the ASA has decided that for the next six months it will be taking a closer look at concerns it receives in this area. This includes asking for more information when it receives complaints from viewers concerned about charity ads upsetting their children, as well presenting the ASA’s Council with more of the ads it receives complaints about. It will be keeping a close eye on the information coming in and, in six months’ time, will carry out a review the information gathered before we’ll be satisfied that no changes are necessary.

As an advertiser, what does this mean for me?

1) Consider your media carefully; be sure your ads are appropriate to be seen by children. This doesn’t just mean the imagery; even young children pick up on distressing messages

2) Be prepared to hear from the ASA. While it doesn’t propose to investigate more complaints, it does propose to present the ASA Council with more cases. This could result in a letter from the ASA explaining that a complaint was received about your ad but that we didn’t decide to investigate it.

3) Contact Copy Advice. The Copy Advice service is free, fast and confidential and the team are experts in helping you get your ads right.

4) Finally, look out for the report in six months time.

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