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Horror show? Charity ads that are 'too violent for children'

Research finds three in 10 under-16s are unsettled by sexual, frightening content
  • @martin_hickman

Hard-hitting advertising campaigns aimed at discouraging drink-driving or raising money for charity are frightening children, according to a study published today.

Researchers discovered that three in 10 children aged 11 to 16 had been unsettled by an advert in the last 12 months, with the main concerns being sexual, violent and "scary" content.

Both parents and children were upset by public service campaigns which employed shock tactics to shake people out of bad behaviour, the Advertising Standards Authority report found.

When asked which adverts they found offensive, members of the public spontaneously raised an anti-drink driving campaign by the Department of Environment in Northern Ireland, which featured a runaway car flying into a back garden where a child was playing with a football.

Viewers also voiced objections to charity adverts which present scenes of suffering in an attempt to solicit donations. The report said: "Adverts for international aid charities, animal charities and child protection charities were frequently cited as being offensive, often because they use portrayals of violence or mistreatment in their advertising."

On behalth of the ASA, Ipsos-Mori surveyed 1,288 adults and 1,020 children aged 11-16 between February and April this year to discover whether advertising was offensive.

The researchers found that on the whole the public agreed with the judgments being exercised by the watchdog about what should be shown during commercial breaks. Only one in six adults (16 per cent) said they had been personally offended by an ad or ads in the last 12 months, slightly lower than the 19 per cent when similar ASA research was conducted in 2002.

However the figure was much higher among children, who spontaneously mentioned that they or younger siblings had been recently upset by charity and public service adverts. Parents were also concerned about the adverts.

Some felt the campaigns had gone too far and used distressing content to make people feel upset or guilty, while a number of parents felt charities were pressuring their offspring directly to donate money. Others felt the ads should have more scope to shock because of their worthwhile aims. More generally, the poll revealed a degree of unease about the portrayal of unrealistic body images, although only a minority felt that specific examples of those ads should be banned. There was also concern about women being objectified and men being portrayed as stupid or engaging in juvenile behaviour.

A "few" participants had concerns about sexual content and nudity in advertising, particularly where they could see no link between sex and the product being advertised, but the majority were unconcerned by the level of sexual content and nudity, describing it as relatively inoffensive compared with other types of media.

The study into the public's views of what is harmful and offensive in UK advertising deemed that the ASA was "broadly getting it right" in terms of judging ads inappropriate or harmful.

The Advertising Codes require the ASA to make judgments based on prevailing standards in society, with the study deigned to help inform its decision making on matters relating to harm and offence.

Lord Smith, chairman of the Advertising Standards Authority, said: "This research is invaluable in giving us the opportunity to listen to what the public thinks on matters of harm and offence in ads. While it is reassuring that we generally seem to be getting things right, we cannot ignore the real concerns that have been raised, particularly around children."

He added: "We will now reflect on the findings, for example making sure we consider the perspectives of children even more carefully in the future."