The Advertising Standards Authority is considering whether to take a tougher approach to charity adverts in response to research that found some members of the public think charities go too far when using distressing content.
The regulator said in a statement today that it had been looking into the nature of the complaints it receives about charity and public services adverts after publication of its study Public Perception of Harm and Offence in UK Advertising in August 2012.
One of the findings from the survey of 1,200 people, including 540 parents of children under 16, was that many felt some charity adverts contained offensive content that went too far in making people feel uncomfortable or guilty.
As a result, the ASA said it would be putting more checks and balances in place when assessing complaints about charity and public service adverts in the next six months. When that time is up, the ASA Council, the body that decides whether adverts have breached the advertising codes of practice, will decide whether or not to change its approach to charity adverts.
A television advert from the first-aid charity St John Ambulance was the 10th most complained-about advert in 2012.
The regulator said in a statement: "Traditionally, we’ve granted more leeway to these types of advert because of the importance of the issues they raise awareness for. But our research has prompted us to question whether we’re getting things right.
"Although a thorough and comprehensive analysis of our own complaints data – both the nature and relatively low volume – supports our view that we’re drawing the line in the right place at present, we don’t feel we can ignore the strength of feeling shown by the spontaneous responses in the Harm and Offence research."
The extra checks and balances on charity adverts will involve all complaints about them being presented to the ASA Council. A spokesman said that previously the council would look only at complaints that were being investigated or when its views were being sought on whether the regulator should investigate.
Alistair McLean, chief executive of the Fundraising Standards Board, welcomed the outcome of the ASA’s review and said it would await "with interest" the council’s decision in six months about whether to take a different approach.
"Broadcast advertising is a powerful visual tool in raising funds for charities," he said. "But it should never be used intentionally to cause distress or anxiety, or risk damaging public trust and confidence as the ASA’s research found," he said.
"When developing these campaigns, charities should take care to consider the impact of potentially shocking images and should always be able to justify their use. We will continue to work with the ASA to ensure that charity advertising complies with the highest fundraising standards."