Release said it has been told its campaign, which incorporates posters on the sides of buses in the capital that read “Nice people take drugs”, is to be removed and that the strapline needs to be altered to temper the message before the ads can be reinstated.
Sebastian Saville, the chief executive of Release added that the removal of the “Nice people take drugs” adverts from buses was an overreaction to a legitimate message.
The charity was told yesterday by CBS Outdoor, the billboard advertising company that booked the bus campaign on its behalf, that the inclusion of the words, “also” or “too” would make the ads less likely to be attract complaints and ensure they fit non-broadcast advertising codes of practice.
Saville said he found if difficult to understand why the campaign might be misconstrued.
He said: “The Nice People Take Drugs campaign is about getting people to think about drug use in our society and for politicians to stop being so frightened of having an open debate on how to more effectively deal with the current situation. I am deeply concerned.”
Saville suggested the move reflected a broader climate in which politicians and regulators seek to stifle debate on drugs and bend to pressure from “moral crusaders”.
Release is known for challenging mainstream approaches to drugs policy. The charity’s latest advertising campaign is part of a wider strategy to challenge drugs policy and attitudes in the UK to drug use and to users.
Saville said getting their message across was vital to constructive debate. “I believe that the time has come where potential leaders of our country have much to gain from real honesty about drug use in the UK, including their own drug use,” he added. “The intellectual debate on drug control has been won and we must stop allowing politicians to adopt fundamentalist and unscientific policies solely out of fear of upsetting a handful of moral crusaders.”
A spokesman for CBS Outdoor told MediaGuardian.co.uk the ads were being take down because of an “oversight” by the company when it booked the campaign.
He said CBS should have run the copy past CAP – the Committee of Advertising Practice – which offers advice on compliance with advertising codes of practice.
“We should have run it past CAP before the ads went up. It is common practice to seek advice on copy that might be dubious,” the spokesman added.
He said CBS ran the copy past CAP after bus companies carrying the campaign contacted the company with concerns about how the adverts might be interpreted.
“Buses are a particularly sensitive area,” the spokesman added. “People really do see them as much more integral to their communities – more than posters or local radio, I think – and so the advertisments on them are very carefully considered.”
Release has been offered replacement advertising space on buses at the end of June if new copy is approved – but this seems unlikely to placate Saville.
He denied he was challenging the need for codes of practice in advertising but added moves to mute “what are clearly not” offensive messages need to be challenged.
“This has been an extremely popular campaign right from launch. I am deeply concerned that without even a single complaint from the public there are systems in place that can decide what we can and can’t talk about. I would suggest this is nothing less than censorship,” Savile said.
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By Mary O’Hara