EDITORIAL: A ban on your ad may be the best form of publicity

Lucy Maggs

The British Heart Foundation has been in the news this week because one of its ads, featuring a woman with a plastic bag over her head, has been flagged up by the Advertising Standards Authority as the most complained about ad from the whole of last year.

The ad was eventually banned due to the worry that children may mimic it and suffocate themselves by putting plastic bags over their heads, although there were also complaints that it was too shocking.

No charity would want to be seen as irresponsible in its advertising practices and when the ad was banned the British Heart Foundation brought out a statement saying it had gone to great lengths to make sure it was acceptable and that it had even consulted the ASA's own copy writers.

But the ASA's decision may have done the foundation more good than harm.

It gained a lot of media coverage when the ad was first banned, and now has a second wave of media attention with the announcement that it was the most complained about ad last year. This kind of media attention could prove more valuable than the ad that would have run had it not been banned.

It is surprising that the most offensive ad only generated 315 complaints, but it's perhaps less surprising that it was from a charity. Although a number of ads spring to mind that are in far worse taste, the public seems more easily offended by advertising from charities.

Organisations using shock advertising have to assess whether it will generate a lot of useful publicity or if it will turn the public off their cause. While this was the most complained about ad of the year, 315 complaints out of the millions of people who saw it is very little. Charities from Barnardo's to the NSPCC have used shock advertising successfully for years and it seems that despite the controversy it provokes, and concerns that the public is becoming immune to these tactics, it does still work.

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