By the time you read this they may have been banned. The new Barnardo’s ads, that is. As I write, the ASA has received more than 200 complaints from the public, and its fast-track adjudication system has been put into top gear so that its Council can swiftly decide whether the campaign should be stopped. Depending on when you read these words, the Council may or may not already have made its decision.
Before going further I should, as they say in Parliament, declare an interest. Or rather declare two interests. First interest: I am a Barnardo’s trustee, and obviously the trustees approved the campaign before it went to press. I myself approved the campaign with unalloyed enthusiasm and support the ads unreservedly. I think they’re great.
Second interest: I was myself an ASA Council member for seven years, and am now chairman of the Advertising Standards Board of Finance, which raises the levy that keeps the ASA running. I support the ASA unreservedly and with unalloyed enthusiasm. I think it’s great.
All of which may suggest to you that I now find myself with my underwear in an unholy twist. Not a bit if it. I feel relatively happy about the whole thing. Why am I happy? Let’s start with the campaign.
Barnardo’s, as you well know, exists to help and care for abused and disadvantaged children. What you probably don’t know, or didn’t know before this campaign started, is that even in affluent Britain in 2003, many of the most abused and disadvantaged children are those born into poverty. This is not a trivial problem. The latest Government data shows that nearly one-third of British children live in poverty. In some appallingly deprived pockets of our inner cities the figure rises to more than 90 per cent.
What does this mean for them? There is no dearth of depressing data. Children brought up in poverty are more likely to have problems with drugs and alcohol, to become criminal and to be the victims of crime, to end up homeless, to be socially and educationally excluded, and in the fullness of time to have impoverished children of their own. The cycle is as relentless as it is devastating.
People quibble about the Government’s definition of poverty, but the exact definition hardly matters. It is the consequences of poverty that matter, and for many children – not for all, but for many – these consequences are intolerable. Barnardo’s, which helps about 100,000 children each year, is far and away the largest single institution battling against this scourge in our society. To do so it needs every penny it can get.
And it patently needs to spend as little as possible getting it. Barnardo’s annual above-the-line advertising budget is about &£1m – and the trustees regularly and rightly question whether, though modest by modern standards, this can be afforded.
Set against all this is a fundamental difficulty. Barnardo’s knows from copious research that most of the public don’t realise child poverty really exists, certainly don’t realise how widespread it is, don’t understand its dreadful long-term effects and don’t much like to think about it all. From the comfort of their well-heeled homes they simply cannot accept that so many British children are condemned to debilitating destitution. So we have to rattle their cages, to change their beliefs – but with a minimal budget.
Naturally, Barnardo’s could run less harrowing ads. But the role of the advertising is to stop uninterested and sceptical people turning their backs on the problem: to shock them out of apathy and into action, into giving money, into charity. And a couple of years ago Barnardo’s won an IPA Effectiveness Award for proving how well its advertising has been doing so.
Given this background, how can I be relaxed about the possibility of the campaign being banned by the ASA? Well naturally I do not want it banned: I sincerely hope the ASA rejects the complaints. But the campaign has already generated immense publicity for its cause, and that was its aim.
Like Barnardo’s agency Bartle Bogle Hegarty, I believe that in order to awaken people to the horrifying facts, the advertising must jolt both them and the media. Hard. This does not mean we can throw away the rulebook, the accepted Code of Advertising Practice. Barnardo’s and BBH have consulted the CAP Committee at every stage of the campaign’s development, and have changed it considerably in the light of its advice.
But prior consultation does not guarantee ASA approval. The ASA Council, with eight lay members and four industry members under Lord Borrie’s wise chairmanship, makes its own decisions. It makes its decisions without fear or favour, without preconception or bias. The independence of the ASA Council is the keystone upon which our entire self-regulatory system is built – and I happen to believe (as do very many others) that our self- regulatory system is quite exceptional.
So if the ASA Council decides against the Barnardo’s campaign I will bow to its judgement – but I will be unrepentant. I see no contradiction there. But you may disagree.