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Archie Bland: In charity advertising, the end can justify the means

FreeView from the editors at i

Being a susceptible sort, I'm sure there are lots of pieces of advertising that have affected my behaviour over the years, but there's only one I can recall that I act on consciously. Every time I sit in the back of a car, I think of that ad where a cheerful family is driving down the road. A truck pulls out and the teen sitting behind his mother isn't wearing his belt. I remember him being flung forward into the driver's seat, and his bloody nose, and his sister's awful screams, and his mother slumped over the steering wheel, dead. And I buckle up.

It always struck me as a bit jarring, that ad, when it popped up halfway through Friends. But it reminds me that advertising is not simply a matter of sex and special offers. Guilt is just as powerful a force as desire. It is also, for some advertisers, the primary mechanism they have available. This applies especially to ads produced by charities: after all, one can't get people interested in Oxfam by offering to match a competitor's special offer. In a screaming advertising environment which usually presents a world of glamour, hilarity and unfeasibly reasonably priced groceries, anyone forced to work with a negative message had better speak up if they are going to be heard.

Consumers do not necessarily like this: that's what we learned yesterday, when the ASA reported that many participants in a study it undertook thought that hard-hitting adverts for charities were offensive or harmful. These consumers said charity adverts "often made people feel guilty or uncomfortable in a way they considered inappropriate." Of course, there's a bit of an elision here. The people who find these ads offensive sound as if they think that being made to feel guilty or uncomfortable in any context is an imposition. But the truth is, for most of us, a certain amount of guilt or discomfort probably is appropriate; if that can be leveraged to do some good, at least it's actually useful. (It has to be better, after all, than feeling bad about your hair.) There's a lesson here for the charities, obviously: just as with chugging, the line is a fine one, and while being provocative enough to upset some people doesn't make an advert ineffective – in fact, it's probably evidence that it's working - it is of course possible to go too far.

But when the brand is so uniquely unimpeachable, this is a matter of tactics, not morality.

If the price of successful fundraising is for me to live with an upsetting image in my head until it's forced out by a razor with seventeen blades and its own air-conditioning system thirty seconds later, it's a price I'm willing to pay.