Local authorities, Government and other public bodies should be aware that their ad campaigns, like those of commercial companies, are subject to the rules in the Advertising Codes. The ASA will intervene if an ad by a public body crosses the line, whether that’s through being harmful, offensive or misleading.

This year, the ASA investigated five posters by Nottingham City Council which were intended to encourage members of the public to help beggars by donating to charities which provide specialist support, rather than giving cash donations directly. The ASA ruled that four of those posters reinforced negative stereotypes of people who begged and were likely to cause serious or widespread offence.

They took the view that the wording used to describe how cash donations would be spent, and the absolute nature of the language used, gave the overall impression that all those who begged were disingenuous and would use donations for irresponsible purposes. The ASA did not uphold complaints about the remaining poster as it considered the ad, through the use of conditional language and objective tone, was likely to convey that those who begged often face complex problems, and that it encouraged people to donate to charities.

The ruling highlights the importance of considering public sensitivities when preparing ads that touch on emotive subjects. It also serves as a reminder to advertisers that, even when their objective is to help tackle social problems (in the Nottingham case, to address local concerns about aggressive begging), they must carefully consider the tone, language and overall impression of each ad within their campaign.

Government departments, local authorities and other public bodies should also ensure that their ads are not misleading and that objective claims are supported by robust evidence. Examples in which the ASA has asked Government departments or local authorities to substantiate claims made in their ads include the Department for Education’s teacher recruitment ad, Department of Energy and Climate Change’s Green Deal initiative ads and Brighton & Hove City Council’s ad for their consultation on speed limits.

If you are worried about whether your ad campaign might fall foul of the CAP Code, visit CAP Advice on Offence or Misleading advertising. You can also contact the CAP Copy Advice team, who are on hand to give free bespoke advice.

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