News in focus: Is it proving worthwhile to accentuate the positives?

Charity ads are moving away from shock tactics to feel-good stories. Maria Clegg finds out if this is proving to be a success with the public.

What would it take to get your undivided attention? As one of the thousands of voices clamouring to be heard above the media din, charities have to get their message out and encourage potential supporters to confront and respond to unpalatable situations. Graphic campaigns have often been used to ram messages home, but many charities are rejecting shock tactics in favour of a more positive visual language.

Cancer Research UK's current campaign evokes the joy of hearing the words 'all-clear'. Amnesty International no longer prints pictures of torture victims, but tells the life stories of those who have been tortured and challenges supporters to overcome their apathy. This year, Red Cross Week celebrates 60 years with an upbeat poster campaign focusing on three lives saved thanks to its intervention.

The Red Cross deals with human misery on a daily basis, but the current campaign deliberately doesn't focus on suffering, so are charities giving up on the hard sell?

Certainly, international aid agencies have become sensitive to the way in which the recipients of aid are represented. The International Red Cross subscribes to the Disasters Emergency Committee's code of conduct, which aims to portray victims as '"dignified humans, with capacities and aspirations, not just vulnerabilities and fears".

"There is a place for images of need if it's done with dignity," says Lewis Coghlin, British Red Cross head of national fundraising. "But it can be a challenge to live up to that while portraying the urgency of a situation."

Coghlin admits this is a dilemma that most international aid agencies wrestle with. "The Red Cross would think very carefully before using images of extreme hunger."

Coghlin believes that conveying urgency through language and statistics rather than a stark image tends to attract the kind of supporter who will stay with the charity - which is more in line with the Red Cross' development agenda. "There is a danger that people just respond to the image rather than the issue. That's important when you're appealing for the rehabilitation of a community."

Getting a good response to campaigns is important to raise money, but respect for recipients as equal partners is a strong reason for dropping images of suffering. "Things were very different in the 1980s," says Liz Holdaway, Oxfam's communications officer. "The idea of poor people waiting for Western aid would be inappropriate now. We don't shy away from the truth, but we don't do shock tactics or portray people as victims."

But while development charities are trying to engage their supporters to change their behaviour through reasoned argument, the heads of communications at two of Britain's leading children's charities say shock tactics are still essential for breaking down taboos.

"By its nature, visual imagery is challenging. It is processed more quickly and produces a more emotional response," says John Grounds, NSPCC director of communications. The charity is no stranger to controversy. In 1999, the Full Stop TV ads showed teddy bears on the wallpaper of a child's bedroom covering their eyes. "That was the first time we portrayed the reality of what abuse is like," says Grounds. It was vital, he explains, to confront the public with an unacceptable and unpalatable reality. "The ad clearly said 'we cannot continue to look away'."

Barnardo's is equally up-front about the use of challenging imagery.

"The charity's mission determines what kind of images you use and why," says Diana Green, director of communications. "Barnardo's is all about direct practice, and to do this well, the charity needs profile."

In 2001, Barnardo's ran the 'Giving children back their future' campaign, which depicted young deaths as a result of abuse or childhood neglect.

The most recent campaign, which replaced silver spoons in babies' mouths with bottles of meths, syringes and cockroaches, was even more shocking.

"Some supporters contacted us to say they didn't like the campaign and many people simply chose to disbelieve it," says Green. Despite negative press coverage researchers found that, not only was the target audience more aware of Barnardo's after the campaign, but that the charity was rated highly for 'deservedness' and 'closeness to the cause'.

"Barnardo's doesn't run orphanages anymore," Green says. "If there is an outdated perception of what the charity does, we cease to be relevant." The silver spoon campaign repositioned Barnardo's as a modern charity with a crusading character, and helped to keep child poverty on the news agenda. Green is understandably reticent about the details of the next campaign, but promises "we won't be shy".

Children in Need also admits that it has an image at odds with the challenging projects it funds. Last month, the charity went so far as to issue a press release distancing itself from the 'cuddly' Pudsey Bear image, highlighting its funding for 'difficult' groups, such as an outreach youth project with teen sex workers in Liverpool.

"The feel-good factor is very important for our fundraisers, but we want to give people a real idea of our work," says a spokeswoman. Publicly fronted by a large yellow teddy bear and a jocular Irishman, Children in Need's image is far removed from that of Barnardo's, yet both charities are working towards the same goal. Who is to say which approach works best?

"It's okay to be challenging, but it has to have a purpose," says the NSPCC's Grounds. Even when an ad is making the headlines, Grounds says this is a positive result. "We try to see all our communications activities as a whole. It's fine when the ad becomes the story because it's another chance to talk about the issue. You have to be prepared for debate when you're challenging attitudes," he concludes.

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