A city council has been ordered by the Advertising Standards Authority not to re-use four adverts that sought to persuade the public to stop giving money to beggars.
The ASA also told Nottingham City Council to ensure that future ads did not portray those who begged in a manner that was likely to cause widespread or serious offence.
The council said it was considering making a formal request for the watchdog's decision to be independently reviewed.
The ASA investigated five posters issued by the city council in May and June this year. These were:
a. One poster featured a close-up image of a person smoking a roll-up cigarette, with text that stated "BEGGING: WATCH YOUR MONEY GO UP IN SMOKE Begging funds the misuse of drugs #givesmart".
b. One poster featured an image of a homeless man in a sleeping bag begging, with text that stated "BEGGING: WATCH YOUR MONEY GO TO A FRAUD Beggars aren't what they seem #givesmart".
c. One poster featured an image of a discarded lager can, with text that stated "BEGGING: WATCH YOUR MONEY GO DOWN THE DRAIN Begging funds the misuse of alcohol".
d. One poster featured an image of a discarded lager can, with text that stated “IT’S YOUR CHOICE: GIVE MONEY TO SOMEONE BEGGING AND FEED A HARMFUL ADDICTION … OR GIVE TO A CHARITY WHICH PROVIDES TREATMENT AND SUPPORT. Find out how www.endingalcoholharm.co.uk”.
e. One poster featured an image of discarded syringes, with text that stated “PEOPLE WHO BEG OFTEN HAVE SERIOUS DRUG OR ALCOHOL PROBLEMS. PLEASE GIVE TO A CHARITY, NOT TO PEOPLE BEGGING. Find out how www.endingdrugharm.co.uk”.
Seven complainants, who believed that the ads portrayed homeless people in a derogatory manner and implied that all homeless people were engaged in criminal and anti-social behaviour, challenged whether the ads were likely to cause serious or widespread offence.
Nottingham insisted that the posters were not about, and did not refer to, homelessness. The council told the ASA that the campaign's clearly stated objective was to discourage members of the public from giving money to people who begged, almost none of whom were homeless, as it was likely that the money would fund drug or alcohol addictions, which in many cases could be life-threatening.
The council added that the campaign was developed in response to the public's views that in recent years begging was becoming an increasing problem locally, there was a need to tackle the issues faced by people who begged, and also to deal with what was a criminal activity under the Vagrancy Act 1824.
Nottingham accepted that the posters had a 'hard-hitting' message, but one which it considered as necessary in order to effectively convey a vital message.
The council sought to justify its position by citing a blogpost from a local charity for the homeless, which the local authority considered supported the objective of its campaign, as well as a report by the same charity, which found that in the 12 months up to April 2016, 181 of 189 individuals who were witnessed to have engaged in street drinking and/or begging had identified support needs for alcohol and/or substance misuse, and nine had passed away. A survey carried out by Nottingham Crime and Drugs Partnership had also found that begging was the anti-social behaviour issue that local residents were most concerned about.
The city council also provided three case studies which it said were examples of the harassment and disruption those who begged could cause and demonstrated the clear link between begging and drug or alcohol abuse.
Nottingham said that it did not believe that the ads reinforced negative stereotypes, arguing that they reflected reality and gave an accurate picture of what would happen to the cash donations given to beggars – the money given would largely be spent on alcohol and drugs.
In its ruling, the ASA upheld the complaints in relation to ads (a) – (d) only. The advertising watchdog found that:
- The headlines in ads (a) and (c) – "WATCH YOUR MONEY GO UP IN SMOKE" and "WATCH YOUR MONEY GO DOWN THE DRAIN" – particularly the use of "go up in smoke" or "go down the drain" which were often used to describe something to waste or disappearing in an instant, implied that any donations given to beggars would be spent in a wasteful way or for irresponsible means.
- The language used in the accompanying claims "Begging funds the misuse of drugs" and "Begging funds the misuse of alcohol" was absolute in nature, and which the ASA considered reinforced the implication that those who begged would use donations to fund harmful activities.
- Ad (b) referred to the depicted man as a "fraud" and stated that "Beggars aren't what they seem", and considered that it implied that individuals who begged, and appeared to be homeless, had dishonest intentions to deceive members of the public for cash donations.
- Whilst ads (a), (b) and (c) featured the hashtag "#givesmart", which advised members of the public to be vigilant about donating to beggars and suggested there might be alternative way to provide support to them, the ASA considered the overall impression of ads (a), (b) and (c), created by the combination of the elements above, was that all those who begged were disingenuous and used donations for irresponsible purposes.
- Ad (d) included the wording "… or give to a charity which provides treatment and support" which encouraged members of the public to donate to charity as an alternative to donating to beggars directly, and suggested charities were better placed to provide support to those who begged. Nevertheless, the ASA noted that the preceding text "It's your choice: give money to someone begging and feed a harmful addiction", was definitive in nature and considered that overall, ad (d) suggested that all beggars would spend cash donations received irresponsibly to fund their drug or substance addiction.
The ASA said: “[Notwithstanding] Nottingham City Council's view that the ads related specifically to begging, rather than homelessness, and that the strong tone of the ads was justified, we considered that for the reasons discussed above, ads (a) – (d) portrayed all beggars as disingenuous and underserving individuals that would use direct donations for irresponsible means.
“We further considered the ads reinforced negative stereotypes of a group of individuals, most of whom were likely to be considered as vulnerable, who faced a multitude of issues and required specialist support. On that basis, we concluded ads (a) – (d) were likely to cause serious or widespread offence.”
The watchdog did conclude however that ad (e) was unlikely to cause serious or widespread offence.
Cllr Jon Collins, Leader of Nottingham City Council, criticised the ruling, arguing that the ASA had “completely failed to understand the seriousness of the begging problem in cities like Nottingham and why this kind of campaign was needed.”
He said: “Begging harms those who do it because it provides a ready supply of cash to be spent on life-threatening addictions. Also, local people have clearly told us that begging is their number one anti-social behaviour concern in the city centre.
“The ASA has made a decision based on just seven complaints from people who thought the campaign targeted homeless people. It wasn’t about homelessness and made no reference to it. As the Framework housing charity has pointed out, begging shouldn’t be confused with homelessness or rough sleeping. Most people who beg aren’t sleeping rough and most people sleeping rough don’t beg."
Cllr Collins added: “The posters needed to be hard-hitting to get such a serious message across effectively. There’s no point in running a campaign that no-one is going to take notice of. The ASA itself states that because something might be offensive to some people is not grounds for finding a marketing communication in breach of the Code but they don’t seem to have applied this to their decision about this campaign.
“I know there were people who disagreed with the campaign and I welcome the chance to have a proper debate about the issues it raises. But there were also plenty of people who agreed with the campaign and what it was trying to achieve.”