CLOSE-UP: LIVE ISSUE/UNISON CAMPAIGN - Unison has chosen to use strong imagery in its latest spot, Jeremy White reports

Unison's latest campaign, which was launched last week, marks a radical change in direction for the UK's largest union.

Unison's latest campaign, which was launched last week, marks a radical change in direction for the UK's largest union.

At the end of 1995, BMP DDB unveiled its 'ant' campaign where ants band together to ask a bear to move out of their way. Delaney Lund Knox Warren & Partner's latest offering features a woman's slashed wrist. Hard-hitting stuff. So why the change of tactics?

Mary Maguire, the head of press and broadcasting at Unison, argues that the issue they are campaigning for demands this sort of strategy. 'The Tories are proposing cuts in public spending which are not going to benefit public services and the people that rely on them,' she says. 'You have to grab people's attention. You have to use images that make people think. DLKW has done this.'

Greg Delaney, the chairman of DLKW, comments: 'We certainly don't want to upset anybody - but equally we want to draw attention to a serious issue.'

However, a Samaritans spokeswoman argues: 'This kind of imagery can be unhelpful to anyone experiencing suicidal feelings. The Samaritans advise people against using imagery that can lead to copycat behaviour.'

Advertisers often use hard-hitting ads to get the message across - but when do they go too far?

John O'Keeffe, the creative director at Bartle Bogle Hegarty, which produced the recent Barnardo's ads, explains: 'Barnardo's is based upon insight - it's not shock for shock's sake. Once you've established the insight and the idea, the client drives the subject matter. Anything we showed in the ad is tame compared with what Barnardo's deals with every day. We didn't sensationalise.

'The Benetton poster featuring a man dying of AIDS drew contempt in certain quarters because the retailer is a purveyor of jumpers. There was no relevance. That's the key.'

The Unison ad certainly does use relevant, if strong, imagery. 'We make no apologies for using a hard-hitting image. The end justifies the means,' Delaney says.

Sue Unerman, the director of strategic solutions at MediaCom, thinks the imagery used in the Barnardo's ads was spot on, but feels that sometimes advertisers can overstep the mark: 'The NSPCC work was difficult. It gets to a point where it is so upsetting that you have to turn away.'

The Advertising Standards Authority has an advisory team especially for advertisers that are worried about using strong copy or images. The advice is without prejudice and free. Last year the team dealt with 4,500 written enquiries and more than 7,800 calls.

Gary Ward, the head of communications at the ASA, comments: 'Charities are usually given a little more leeway than commercial advertisers, but it doesn't give them a green light to offend. It's a fine line between causing widespread offence and drawing attention to the cause you are promoting.'

But in their eagerness to play it safe, are advertisers losing some important long-term battles? Some issues can't be dealt with using cuddly bears or animated ants. 'We are bombarded by images all the time,' Unerman says.

'Getting one that gets through to people and makes them think is hard.'