Abortion advice ad escapes ASA censure

A controversial ad for Marie Stopes International, the health advisory organisation that offers abortion advice, among other services, has escaped a ban from the Advertising Standards Authority despite receiving 1,054 complaints.

Marie Stopes: ad escapes ASA ban
Marie Stopes: ad escapes ASA ban

The ad, which debuted on Channel 4 in May, also received a further 3,296 complaints in the form of postcards sent in following a petition organised by the Society for the Protection of Unborn Children (SPUC), and another petition with 63 signatures.

In addition there were 327 pre-transmission complaints. Some viewers objected that the TV ad carried a political message and believed the advertisers actively campaigned to change the law on abortion. The ASA referred those complaints to Ofcom according to procedure set out in the Cap (Broadcast) TV Advertising Standards Code rule 4 (Political and controversial issues).

Complainants included members of the public, GPs, counsellors, MPs and other representatives, and MPs who forwarded their constituents concerns.

The complainants objected that the ad was misleading, offensive and harmful and queried its compliance with specific Code rules.

Three women were featured in the TV ad for the not-for-profit organisation, which provided sexual and reproductive healthcare advice, information and services.

The first was a woman waiting at a bus stop, looking down the road with the onscreen text "Jenny Evans is late". Then a woman in a park was shown with her two small children with the text "Katie Simmons is late". Finally, the ad focused on a woman in a café with the text "Shareen Butler is late".

A female voiceover said: "If you're late for your period, you could be pregnant. If you’re pregnant and not sure what to do, Marie Stopes International can help".

The end caption carried the text "Are you late?", a phone number, and the website address for the service.


Viewers objected that the ad was offensive for various reasons including: their belief that it promoted abortion; that it offended their religious beliefs; that it trivialised the difficult decision faced by women experiencing an unwanted pregnancy; and that the ad could be misconstrued – that the life of an unborn child was being equated to decisions about consumer goods.

Other viewers challenged whether MSI should be allowed to advertise on TV because: they believed the organisation charged for its services or that the ad promoted a Prescription Only Medicine (Pom) or a medical procedure, which they believed was not permitted by the Code; that the ad was for a medicinal product aimed at children; or that the ad offered a remote personal advice service on health matters, which they believed breached the Cap code.

In response, MSI said the ad did not mention abortion and did not promote it. The ad was designed to draw attention to their Advice Line and general advice service for any woman concerned about a missed period or unplanned pregnancy. It said they understood that some people were opposed to abortion on religious or other grounds, they respected their beliefs and the intention was not to offend anyone.

The organisation said the ad offered advice for those who needed it. Every year, tens of thousands of women of all religions and nationalities found themselves with an unplanned pregnancy and those women wanted and needed help and advice.

MSI said it felt the ad was very sensitively made and did not trivialise the difficult decision faced by women experiencing an unwanted pregnancy, it did the opposite. MSI said the Advice Line was needed because some women facing that decision needed support and advice.

MSI pointed out that TV ads were used to publicise a range of services, causes and issues that were different from ordinary consumer products. For example, private healthcare, public service ads on health and safety issues and non-commercial charitable causes.

The organisation said advertising of this kind did not involve any equation of the service, cause or issue advertised with ordinary consumer goods, and it did not feel that their ad did either.

It did not believe the ad would be generally perceived as distressing to women who had taken the decision to have an abortion, and stated it had received significantly more calls to the advice line during the period the ad was shown from women and health professionals who expressed gratitude for the support given.

The Marie Stopes advisory service said it had received overwhelmingly positive responses to the ad.

It also said the ad featured a range of women who might need advice about unplanned pregnancies and it focused on women because they were the ones who took the decision about what to do after an unplanned pregnancy.

MSI pointed out that the ad did not explore the circumstances of any of the women featured or how they came to be late. They said they hoped they had been able to reflect, in the short space of time that was provided, that an unplanned pregnancy could happen to any woman of reproductive age.

By showing a range of women in different circumstances it was intended to dispel the often repeated myth that unplanned pregnancy was experienced mainly by "young, feckless, single women".

As an organisation that spoke to and saw tens of thousands of women every year, MSI said it understood an unplanned pregnancy could be a very distressing, isolating experience and some women were not supported by their partner or family.

Clearcast, the advertising clearance centre, said the ad did not encourage viewers to do anything other than contact MSI. It said the ad did not make any reference to abortion or encourage women to have one and made no reference to promiscuity or that it encouraged promiscuity.

The ASA did not uphold the complaints but acknowledged that the issue of abortion was controversial and distasteful to some and that the complainants had strong personal and religious objections to the advertising of abortion services, or services that gave advice about abortion.

It also noted that many complainants regarded the advertisers as advocates of abortion and therefore interpreted the ad as a promotion of abortion.

However, the ad was for an advice service for women dealing with an unplanned pregnancy, and stated MSI could help women who were "pregnant and not sure what to do".

The ASA said it understood MSI provided a wide range of advisory and health services and advised on all options during consultations with clients.

It noted the ad did not focus on any one particular service offered by MSI and did not mention abortion and therefore considered it was an ad for a general pregnancy advice service for women who wished to learn about and discuss their options, which might include, but were not limited to, abortion.

No further action will be taken by the ASA.

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