Top 5 Violent Public Service Announcements


Written by Kieron Monks
23 Monday 23rd February 2009

Graphic violence is an essential part of modern life. Our films and television programmes have steadily pushed the envelope for what is acceptable, while UFC has taken over from boxing as our favourite punching sport. But we wouldn't necessarily expect to see this trend mirrored by our public services.

Government departments for health and safety are resorting to increasingly grim tactics for getting their messages across. The ballooning abscesses and blackened tissue of smokers has long been fair game for the Planet Terror-esque creative gurus of the NHS. But these are no longer a short, sharp shock amid a sea of blandly non-confrontational ads. In an average evening the viewing public can drink in the spectacle of run-over children, civil war in a weed-addled brain and sledgehammer critiques of any vice you'd care to mention.

Recent studies from Boston University showed that anti-smoking campaigns are most effective on young adolescents, with a negligible impact on older, long-term smokers. Studies like this give a clue as to why so many graphic adverts today use children to carry their message. A fire safety commercial that featured the soundtrack of a young boy crying and suffocating in a smoke filled room was broadcast for months in 2006, while we are all familiar with the teenage drivers whose negligence turns them into tomato sauce. Carl Winters, a producer for private ad agencies, believes the use of children is counter-productive: "I just change the channel straight away. These adverts aim to shock but all they do is alienate people who blank out the message. It just slowly seeps into you that 'yes, that is a dead boy I'm seeing'".

Is it fair to target children in this way? The supposed benefit, their heightened sensitivity to such material, can also be dangerous. It's been 15 years since the Jamie Bulger case, when violent movies were blamed for his tragic murder by other children. Censorship and certification of films exist to avoid exposing young people to psychological harm, so why would ultra-realistic non-fiction be any safer? A Department of Health spokesman insisted, "Our adverts are not designed to shock. They are designed to cause an emotional re-appraisal, making people stop and think about the effects of their actions. In addition, all our television adverts are taken through a careful process of clearance before they are deemed suitable for broadcast".

Nonetheless it has become accepted that public service broadcasts are treated with greater leniency than private ones. "There is an unwritten law to give government adverts more leeway," says Matt Wilson of the Advertising Standards Agency. "The same rules officially apply but we take the message into account." But where is it written the government agendas are inherantly worthy and benign? In 2007 the ASA banned the NHS' 'fishhook' campaign against smoking because of the "undue horror" of the images. But why then allow road safety campaigns full of blood and corpses, not to mention the psychological horror used to scare road tax evaders and benefit cheats?

Perhaps the problem is the sheer volume of horrific adverts, desensitising both public and censor enough to let the vast majority through. Certainly we are far more accustomed to sex and violence than in any previous era. As Wilson says, "Our standards reflect the modern climate, so what might have offended taste and decency twenty years ago is passable now. Conversely, there were adverts deemed OK in the 50's such as 'cigarettes can cure your sore throat' that would never be allowed now." Over 75 percent of complaints to the ASA regard misleading claims such as this, so it seems we can be grateful that adverts today are more honest at least.
Drink driving advert 2008.

But if horrific imagery is truly the only way to influence people, then public health and safety is in severe peril. How have we become so bad with drink, drugs and driving that we need shock therapy to zap us back onto the right track? The trend for violence in government broadcasts evokes a Clockwork Orange-era society, with brutality serving as a last, desperate measure. Most people can be trusted to think and act for themselves, while those that can't will not be changed by an image of a dead child.


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