Poverty of debate

Barnardo’s child poverty ads may have been tasteless, but they should not have been banned.

Josie Appleton

Topics Politics

After receiving a record number of complaints, the UK Advertising Standards Authority has banned the latest advertising campaign by the children’s charity Barnardo’s (1). The ads, which aimed to highlight the issue of child poverty, included pictures of a newborn baby with a cockroach crawling out of its mouth

The ads were tasteless and emotionally manipulative – but they should still be shown. If we want a free and open public debate, this means allowing people to say and show things that cause offence to others. The alternative is to give official bodies the power to filter what we see and hear.

Barnardo’s has run these kind of high-profile shock campaigns before. In 2000, ads showed a baby with a tourniquet gripped in its mouth, preparing to shoot up with heroin; ‘John Donaldson, age 23’, read the caption (2). The current campaign also features posters of a baby with a bottle of methylated spirits in its mouth, and another with a syringe. ‘There are no silver spoons for children born into poverty’, reads the caption.

The charity claims that the posters have the effect of sparking public debate about poverty. It is difficult to see how. There is no analysis of why poverty exists, and no suggested solutions. Instead, the ads are merely a shocking guilt-trip; a shout to every passing commuter that you are ignoring people’s suffering – as if hardship persists because we all selfishly push it to the back of our minds.

The wording on the cockroach ad reads: ‘Baby Greg is one minute old. He should have a bright future. Poverty is waiting to rob Greg of hope and spirit and is likely to lead him to a future of squalor.’ Poverty is presented as an issue of problematic behaviour and low self-esteem, rather than of not having enough money. Drug and alcohol abuse, sex abuse, squalor – the message is one of debilitating lifestyles being interminably passed down from parents to children.

It is perhaps no coincidence that these adverts look similar to those of Italian clothes company Benetton, which has used shocking images of death-row convicts, a bloody newborn baby, children with Down’s Syndrome and a man dying of AIDS. The aim of Benetton’s ads was not to discuss important issues, but to publicise Benetton; perhaps the same thing could be said about the Barnardo’s campaign. At the end of the day, this too looks more like self-publicity than anything to do with public debate or solving poverty.

This said, the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) was wrong to ban the ads. The ASA concluded that ‘the photographs were likely to cause serious or widespread offence’; it discounted complaints that the adverts might encourage children to emulate the scenes depicted (3).

No doubt some members of the public were offended by the ads. Since the campaign was launched four weeks ago, it has reportedly provoked 466 complaints. Scaling up for all those who were offended but could not be bothered to complain, this is a reasonable number. Yet it shouldn’t be overstated: according to a study by the online surveyors OMD snapshots, 62.5 per cent of correspondents were not shocked by the images (4).

In any case, offence is a necessary part of free debate. In a robust exchange of views, some people won’t like what others say. There is no such thing as a right not to be offended. Sometimes the offender is in the right, sometimes in the wrong. Whichever is the case, he must be allowed to speak. The alternative is to allow organisations such as the ASA to decide what we see and hear. As self-appointed guardians of public sensibility, these organisations get to draw the line on what is acceptable. They effectively play the role of parents, screening out anything that might not be suitable for the children.

Banning the Barnardo’s ads may well have furthered the charity’s agenda. For a start, there was good publicity – column inches discussing the campaign, along with reproductions of the pictures. But it also allowed Barnardo’s to play the victim, adding credence to its campaign. ‘While the adverts may have shocked some sensibilities’, said the charity in a statement, ‘they succeeded in highlighting the very serious issue of child poverty in the UK and challenging the blinkered views of those who claim it does not exist’ (5).

By these accounts, the ASA just looks like it is refusing to acknowledge Barnardo’s hard message about child poverty. Public scorn would have been a more effective rebuke to Barnardo’s than an official ban.

(1) Child poverty adverts banned, 10 December 2003

(2) See Barnardo’s campaigns on the Guardian‘s website

(3) Child poverty adverts banned, Guardian, 10 December 2003

(4) Quoted in Private Eye, 12-25 December 2003

(5) Barnardo’s “saddened” by decision on challenging advertisements

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Topics Politics


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