Shocking images: necessary or manipulative?

Shocking images: necessary or manipulative?

The much-debated question of charity advertising resurfaced again recently with research from the Advertising Standards Authority suggesting many feel charity adverts go too far by using distressing images to make people feel uncomfortable or guilty. Exposing children to them was a particular concern.

This is nothing new, as alongside news reporting, charities have over the years come under fire for placing increasingly shocking pictures in the living rooms of the general public.

Interestingly though, the same survey reported that some feel charity adverts should have more scope to shock because of their worthwhile aims. Undoubtedly, this type of advertising is effective in bringing in funding as it is still widely used, and the unrestricted funds it generates are especially valuable in the current climate. So is it worth causing a bit of distress and guilt, in order to support people who may live in some level of distress every day?
Many argue that these images are no worse than those used in news reporting, and so shouldn’t be kept from the public sphere. But it seems to be the shock of seeing people suffering when you are not expecting it (during an evening’s TV viewing) that most offends people. After all, the likes of Children in Need don’t shy away from using ‘distressing’ imagery of the people they support, and they raise huge amounts every year. Perhaps this is because those sitting down to watch it are prepared to both see moving images and act on what they see.

There is, of course, an important distinction between advertising and PR. A PR campaign often seeks to establish or strengthen a charity’s position as effective, knowledgeable and secure, and while this can include using case studies and images from the frontline, in many cases these are positive or point towards a solution. If a charity is to have a sustainable and respected profile, it cannot put out a media story that is intentionally manipulative or gratuitously sensationalist.

Charities have to decide what is right for them, of course, according to their audiences, aims and values. We love stories that inform and inspire, that shake things up and aren’t afraid of the reality of life and of individuals, but when the style of the imagery becomes the talking point, rather than the issue, can you really say a campaign has done its job?

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