The time is right for charities to shock again

The headline finding for the voluntary sector in the latest annual report of the Advertising Standards Authority is that the number of complaints about non-commercial organisations more than doubled last year.

The figure had already increased by 150 per cent in 2008, from its 2007 level.

But this year’s list of the top 10 most-complained-about ads contains only one charity entry: the deliberately-provocative bus adverts by the British Humanist Association, which carried the slogan “There’s probably no God”. 

The doubling of the figure was probably due to complaints about non-commercial groups that are not charities, such as the Christian Party’s adverts that mimicked the atheist bus campaign but read “There definitely is a God”, which was the most-complained-about advert of the year.

Children’s charity Barnardo’s, whose ads showing newborn babies with cockroaches coming out of their mouths and children being hit have featured prominently in previous ASA lists, was nowhere to be seen. Neither was the British Heart Foundation, whose image of a woman with a plastic bag over her head was eventually banned, nor animal rights charity Peta, which equated feeding children meat to child abuse.

So, what’s happened to charities? Have they abandoned shock tactics because they’re becoming less effective?

Or are they erring on the side of caution because money is so tight at the moment, especially in many charities’ marketing and communications departments? Spending large sums on an advert that is later banned might be difficult to justify to a board of trustees.

I hope the recession hasn’t made charities more cautious and timid in this way. The sector’s riskier campaigns, when executed well, are lively and challenging and get people talking. They set charity adverts apart from those that are pushing products.

And now, more than ever, charities could get away with being controversial. The public would understand, if they were prompted to do so, that charities and their beneficiaries are having a particularly tough time in the recession.

I think it’s time for the sector to produce a few more Barnardo’s-style shockers.