The ‘third sector’ - organisations such as charities, voluntary bodies, non-commercial companies and government - are well-known for producing memorable but also provocative ad campaigns. Whether it’s a public awareness ad encouraging us to put our seat-belt on or to stop smoking, or a charity ad depicting scenes of famine, war and human suffering in order to appeal for donations, ads in this sector can be hard-hitting, thought provoking and sometimes make us feel uncomfortable, upset and, occasionally, even offended.
The use of ‘shock tactics’ is nothing new and it can be a highly effective way of getting a message across. Perhaps because of the important and serious nature of the work they do and the issues they’re trying to raise awareness of, we, the ASA, and the general public tend to give more leeway to ads from the third sector to use this approach. But like all advertisers, they still have to stick to the rules. For example, their ads should be prepared in a socially responsible way, be targeted sensitively and, in particular, avoid being likely to harm children.
While we accept that advertisers drawing attention to distressing issues in this sector may feel that a degree of shock is warranted to get their message across; our rules say ads should contain nothing that is likely to cause serious or widespread offence, cause fear or distress without good reason, or use shocking claims or images merely to attract attention.
Advertisers can carefully target their ads to help minimise the possibility of an ad that uses shock-tactics being considered inappropriate. Particularly graphic or distressing third sector ads could be considered unsuitable for posters and billboards that may be seen by children; but if scheduled correctly on TV or radio or placed on internet sites or in magazines aimed at adults, ads like this may be less likely to be a problem under the rules.
The rules don’t just apply to hard hitting imagery though - third sector advertisers need to be able to hold evidence for any claims they make in their ads and they must ensure they don’t mislead consumers. This includes making clear precisely where donations will end up.