Autumn 2000

The future is ours to see

BBH’s Barnardo’s campaign communicates with a force rarely seen in charity advertising. Critique by Rick Poynor

There can be few more sensitive or emotive issues in the media today than the way we treat our children. For the past twenty years, western societies have been slowly bringing to light the profoundly alarming catalogue of maltreatment and exploitation to which our most vulnerable members are subjected. Much of it beggars belief: child prostitution, systematic abuse by trusted care workers, physical and sexual abuse in the supposedly safe haven of the home.

These are harrowing revelations and the charities battling to improve children’s lives rightly employ the most powerful communication techniques. It’s possible to be too uncompromising, though, as Barnardo’s discovered when it ran a full-page ad in the British papers, showing a twenty-month-old baby yanking on a tourniquet with his teeth and about to jab a syringe into his flesh. Above him it said: ‘John Donaldson. Age 23.’ The copy continued: ‘Battered as a child, it was always possible that John would turn to drugs. With Barnardo’s help, child abuse need not lead to an empty future.’

Predictably, there was an outcry. Not about the issue addressed by the ad, but about whether it was too shocking for some viewers. The Committee of Advertising Practice asked newspapers not to run it, and some toed the line. Barnardo’s ended up creating a benign alternative (‘The ad we wish we could have run’) with a smiling baby. Despite this setback, the latest ad in the series - the sixth - has recently been launched. Like the others, it shows a child in an adult situation that could lie ahead for the neglected. This time it’s Kim Vale, a prostitute about to climb into a john’s parked car.

Once again, it’s a stunningly persuasive piece of communication. It’s only too easy to write off adults. We do it all the time: it’s their own fault, it’s one of those things, it’s life. But the ads remind you that tragic futures - homelessness, alcoholism, prison, suicide - happen to people who were once innocent children, like our own, and cannot possibly have ‘deserved’ such a fate. Their emotional force as narratives lies in their apparent realism, but it’s a heightened, expressive realism in which every element of the image is focused to dramatise the child, who shines forth from dingy backgrounds - alley, tunnel, prison cell - in an optimistic glow of colour. These are brilliant digital illusions. The baby, who in reality was eating a chocolate bar, appears to sit in a filthy corner. Young Martin Ward - ‘made to feel worthless as a child’ - seems to teeter on the edge of a hand rail, at the top of a multi-storey car park, on a dismal-looking estate.

Barnardo’s no longer runs orphanages and wants to shed its old image. The ads, devised by Bartle Bogle Hegarty, are a particularly hard-hitting form of rebranding. They have been so effective as attention-getters that others are trying a similar approach. In the Imperial Cancer Research Fund’s new print and billboard campaign, three girls sit on a stone wall, looking at the clouds (read: ‘the future’). Above their heads, it says ‘Lawyer’, ‘Teacher’ and ‘Cancer’. According to the copy, on current statistics, at least one in three people will contract the illness at some point in their lives. This ad, too, has drawn fierce criticism, not because it is disquieting as an image - it’s mild as soapsuds - but because it is deeply insensitive, seems to offer little hope and reduces sufferers to ‘cancer victim’, as though this were the defining aspect of their life and identity.

What distinguishes the Barnardo’s series, by contrast, is that, even as the campaign confronts viewers with these unwelcome tableaux, it does offer hope. In his innovative TV play, Blue Remembered Hills, the late Dennis Potter asked adult actors to play children, a disturbing and unforgettable conceit. Using small children to play damaged adults provides an equally heartwrenching compression of before and after, cause and effect. The ads are a kind of time travel. They project their imaginary subjects into a hypothetical but all-too-plausible future and ask whether this is really the way we want it to be.

Rick Poynor, writer, founding editor of Eye, London

First published in Eye no. 37 vol. 10, 2000

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