Graphic animal ads fox the watchdogs

Ad campaigns by animal welfare groups can have a huge impact – but how far should they be allowed to go?

The advertising image of a fox being torn from limb to limb by a pack of dogs has resulted in thousands of people putting pen to paper to urge their MPs to support the Wild Mammals (Hunting with Dogs) Bill.

The initiative is the result of two non-profit making pressure groups – the League Against Cruel Sports (LACS) and the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) – joining forces with a major charity, the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (RSPCA) – and spending millions of pounds on advertising the horrors of blood sport.

Yet the likelihood of a hunting ban actually being imposed is minimal, as ministers say the Bill – published last week and scheduled for its second reading on November 28 – will be given no Parliamentary extra time due to a “tight timetable”. Without extra time, it will be difficult to push the measure through.

So why are the RSPCA, IFAW and LACS bothering to team up? Partly, there seems to be a genuine belief among the organisers that they will prevail against Parliamentary procedure. Partly it is an opportune occasion to raise public consciousness about the issues involved.

Michael Foster’s Private Members Bill, designed to make it an offence for a dog to pursue, injure, attack or kill any wild animal has undoubtedly stirred up plenty of controversy.

Reaction to the Bill by pro-hunting activists has been aggressive. Foster has received violent threats and there was a mass rally, whose numbers surprised even the organisers, in Hyde Park which attempted to influence public opinion against the ban.

None of this has deterred the animal campaigners. LACS, IFAW and the RSPCA have created an umbrella group called the Campaign for the Protection of Hunted Animals (CPHA) and are spending several million pounds on a joint and individual press advertising and direct mail campaign, in the certain knowledge that they have most of public opinion on their side. Only one per cent of the British population are involved in fox hunting, while 71 per cent believe that hunting with dogs should be banned (MORI).

LACS has raised 250,000 against its assets to pay for the campaign. Kevin Saunders, spokesman for the group, is confident that every penny is being well spent.

“Some MPs are telling us that the amount of [lobbying for the ban] mail is bigger than the rest of their mail put together,” he says. The RSPCA mailed all of its 678,000 database simultaneously for the first time: as a result over 50,000 members have written to their MP.

The freephone information line quoted in the ads has proved useful. Saunders says: “You can set up an information stall in a town and perhaps get 300 people to take a campaign pack, but with press advertising you are talking about [reaching] thousands.”

Campaigning of this sort can be very effective. In 1995, following a similar but smaller drive by the RSPCA, the charity’s supporters helped to persuade MPs to pass the Wild Mammals (Protection) Bill. The first prosecutions under the new act took place this year.

Similarly, an ad for the Whale & Dolphin Conservation Society, which invited readers to lobby the Government before the recent vote on re-introducing commercial whaling in Monaco, resulted in the minister of Agriculture, Fisheries & Food, Elliot Morley, being deluged with a tidal wave of faxes from irate members of the public. The vote did not go through.

RSPCA spokeswoman Kate Parminter feels that charities’ strengths lie not only in their ability to raise awareness but in mobilising support quickly. “It is not right to use mass communication methods just for information purposes. All our advertising is about provoking action,” she says.

But there are limits constraining the scope of such campaigns. For example, charities are bound by Charity Commission guidelines, which state that they must not “act in a way which would bring the charity into disrepute”.

Likewise, Broadcast Advertising Clearance Committee guidelines inhibit politically sensitive advertising on television.

The Commission’s political activities and campaigning by charities guidelines set the tone: “On the one hand, many people think that charities…have a duty…to campaign freely to change public policy on any issue relevant to their work. On the other hand, some argue that such campaigning is a misuse of charity funds [and] a misdirection of effort.”

The Commission maintains that the RSPCA, which retains Abbott Mead Vickers.BBDO as its ad agency, has not over-stepped its guidelines.

The IFAW on the other hand – which is using EURO RSCG Wnek Gosper for this campaign – and is not restricted by Charity Commission guidelines – has a reputation for sailing close to the wind. Previous ads have featured a seal’s severed penis (used as an aphrodisiac in some cultures) and a fisherman clubbing a seal to death, with a cutting strapline directed at Tesco (which sells Canadian salmon).

Steven Lee, director of the Institute of Charity Fund-Raising Managers, argues that “shocking” advertising images are an inevitable consequence of what charities do,

as subjects such as disability, terminal illness, animal cruelty, child abuse, homelessness and Third World poverty, are often offensive in themselves.

He applauds charities’ media efforts to publicise social issues. “Charities exist to effect change in society…and address the needs of those they represent.” In other words, their role is not simply to throw money and volunteers at the needy, but to use any means possible to protect, defend and fight for them.

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