News in focus: Barnardo's refuses to tone it down

Katherine Demopoulos

Its 'children in the womb' campaign maintains its provocative approach.

Barnardo's 'New Life' advertising campaign, featuring images of children returned to the womb, does not appear quite as shocking as either its 'heroin baby' advert of 2000 or its 'silver spoon' campaign of 2003, both of which generated huge numbers of complaints to the Advertising Standards Authority.

Nevertheless, the new campaign, by the same advertising agency, does not suggest Barnardo's has decided to tone down its controversial approach to advertising. Indeed, Andrew Nebel, the charity's director of fundraising, marketing and communications for eight years, fully expects some people might take the view that the charity is "parodying the concept of birth" and be offended by that.

Responses to the new campaign will be closely scrutinised by others in the sector, because the extent to which Barnardo's is prepared to push the boat out has become something of a barometer for charity advertising in general. Its adverts have been attracting controversy since founder Dr Thomas Barnardo was vilified for using 'before' and 'after' photos of vulnerable children. But many suspected the charity had reached a watershed when its picture of a cockroach crawling from a baby's mouth generated the most complaints to the ASA in 2003 and was banned. Its next campaign was keenly awaited.

Now it is out, Nebel confirms that striking images will remain central to the way the charity projects itself. And he remains puzzled as to how such a clearly surreal image as the cockroach baby can cause upset.

"I can honestly say we were not trying to shock for theatrical purposes," he says. "We were seeking to make them unmissable, but with a tight budget we can't afford to make any ineffective ads. And if bland advertising is the only alternative, there's no point."

Nor can he believe so few charities use such tactics, given their proven success. Before the 'silver spoon' campaign, four out of five people surveyed by Barnardo's were unaware there was any child poverty. Afterwards, the figures had reversed. The NSPCC was equally effective with its hard-hitting cartoon campaign in 2002, which highlighted abuse with the tagline "real kids don't bounce back". Calls to the helpline doubled during that period, says spokeswoman Vindy Bains.

Betty McBride is director of policy and communications at the British Heart Foundation, the charity behind the fat-oozing cigarette. She says research showed that quit rates and website visitor numbers among the hardest-to-reach group - manual workers - doubled in 2004's first quarter, immediately after the ad's launch.

But whether shock images translate into long-term benefit is another matter, according to Helen Ashley, director of PR and marketing agency Upward Curve. "I think people have found that you get an immediate awareness, but you won't get a long-term awareness," she argues.

This has prompted some charities to favour humour over shock to reach their audience, she says. Witness the Prostate Cancer Charity's campaign, which asks "Are you more spunky than a monkey?", the Vegetarian Society's advert that challenges people to go without meat for seven days with the eyebrow-raiser "Can you keep it up for a week?", and Christian Aid's posters containing light-hearted statements such as "A chicken lasts longer than an omelette".

But although most would agree that shock for shock's sake is the wrong approach, those charities that have opted to stick with a serious style claim that startling people may be the only way to effect cultural change on a broader scale. As McBride says: "The raison d'etre can't be simply to shock people. We're professional charity fundraisers and we say: 'What's the best way to do it with our resources and our knowledge? What is the best way to effect a change?'"

Preferring to label the smoking images "arresting" rather than "shocking", McBride says the BHF won't back away from using provocative imagery. "If disgruntled of Milton Keynes gets upset, I'm sorry," she says. "But if someone gives up smoking as a result, that's what social marketing is all about. I will listen to what people say, but I will also be very clear about my goals and what social marketing can offer to the charity I work with."

And the nature of some complaints about Barnardo's past campaigns could even give Andrew Nebel more licence to stir things up.

"They weren't complaining that the images were too graphic; they just couldn't accept there was a valid issue," he says. "Some people even said those depicted in the ads were responsible for their own misfortune.

"This level of ignorance means people don't believe a problem exists and take offence. Discomfort with the issue meant that they were uncomfortable with the image."

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