Sometimes charity adverts should shock and appal. That’s their purpose. They should shake us out of our comfort zones, and inspire us to support the cause.
Injustice, poverty, human rights abuses, health inequalities, environmental exploitation, violence and cruelty are shocking and appalling things.
The Advertising Standards Authority announced last week that it is considering whether to take a tougher approach to charity adverts.
This is in response to research that found some members of the public think charities go too far in using distressing content, which made them feel uncomfortable and guilty.
I tend to think this just means the charity ads are doing their job. I’m not sure it does us any harm to be made to feel uncomfortable or guilty sometimes, especially if it compels us to do something about it by giving our time or money.
To provoke an emotional reaction, charity ads often need to be challenging, disruptive and harrowing.
It’s easy to feel that it’s impossible to make a difference sometimes – that the world’s problems are just too big. But the best charity adverts and appeals challenge the viewer, reader or passer-by, to believe they can make a difference and that their support could change a child’s life, lift a family out of poverty, rescue an animal from cruelty or save polar bears.
The ASA says: “Traditionally, we’ve granted more leeway to these types of advert because of the importance of the issues they raise awareness for.”
This seems like absolutely the right approach and I think any change from that position would just be wrong, especially if it was just to placate a sensitive or precious minority.
It recognises that charities aren’t selling chocolate or washing power but are asking people to take action to help them confront the world’s most challenging problems.
The ASA already seems to take a pragmatic approach and says that it receives a relatively low volume of complaints about charity ads.
An advert from the first-aid charity St John Ambulance was the ASA’s 10th most complained about ad last year. It showed a man and his family dealing with his diagnosis, treatment and recovery from cancer, only for him to die by choking on a piece of food because nobody can give him first aid. It was the subject of 144 complaints.
The regulator rejected the complaints, saying although the ad was “distressing in its portrayal”, the overall message was justifiable.
As Scott Jacobson, the charity’s director of marketing, communications and fundraising, put it: “The advert has been said to be shocking, but then it’s shocking when someone dies who could have had the chance to live.”