ASA Adjudication on Department of Health
Department of Health
231B Skipton House
80 London Road
16 May 2007
Television, Magazine, Poster, National press, Internet
Number of complaints:
Miles Calcraft Briginshaw Duffy (MCBD)
a. A TV ad showed a woman folding clothes while a child watched TV. She said "Ten more minutes then homework, yeah?". She looked out of the window. A hook appeared in her mouth and she was dragged along the floor and into another room by a wire attached to the hook. As the woman was shown smoking, a voice-over stated "The average smoker needs over 5000 cigarettes a year". The ad cut to a man walking down a street. He was dragged along the ground, over a car bonnet and into a corner shop by a line attached to a hook pulling on the inside of his cheek. The man was shown leaving the shop and putting a cigarette in his mouth while a voice-over and on-screen text stated "Get unhooked. Call 0800 169 0 169 or visit www.getunhooked.co.uk".
b. A follow-up TV ad, broadcast in the same ad break as ad (a), showed the same man and woman removing and discarding the hooks from their cheeks. A voice-over stated "If you're a smoker, getting unhooked isn't easy. That's why the NHS offers a whole range of ways to help you stop. To find out what's best for you call 0800 169 0 169, press the red button or visit www.getunhooked.co.uk".
c. A second TV ad showed a man talking on the phone in an office; he was dragged through the office along the floor, by a wire attached to a hook pulling on the inside of his cheek, into an alley outside where he smoked a cigarette. A voice-over stated "The average smoker needs over 5000 cigarettes a year. Get unhooked. Call 0800 169 0 169 or visit www.getunhooked.co.uk".
d. A follow-up TV ad, broadcast in the same ad break as ad (c), showed the same man removing the hook from his cheek and throwing it in a bin. A voice-over stated "If you're a smoker, getting unhooked isn't easy. That's why the NHS offers a whole range of ways to help you stop. To find out what's best for you call 0800 169 0 169, press the red button or visit www.getunhooked.co.uk".
The TV ads were cleared by the Broadcast Advertising Clearance Centre (BACC) with an ex-kids restriction, which meant they should not be shown in or around programmes made for or specifically targeted at children.
e. Four posters, national press ads in The Daily Express, The Sunday Express, The Daily Mail, The Mail on Sunday, The Daily Mirror, The Sunday Mirror, The Star, The Sun and The Herald, and magazine ads in TV Choice, TV Quick and TV Times showed people with pained expressions; a taught wire was pulling on hooks embedded above their lips. Text stated "The average smoker needs over five thousand cigarettes a year. Get unhooked. Call 0800 169 0 169 or visit www.getunhooked.co.uk".
f. Four Internet ads showed a man or woman's head with a taught line attached to a fish hook embedded in their cheek. Viewers could click on the line to pull on it, the face would then distort and an audio clip would play before text that stated "The average smoker needs over 5000 cigarettes a year. Visit getunhooked.co.uk" appeared. The audio clips stated "I buy a pack of cigarettes and keep them in my bag in case I get stressed at work and then two days later I smoke the lot. Must stop doing that"; "I've smoked since I was young. I have tried quitting because my wife nags me a lot, but I enjoy smoking, it's as simple as that really"; "I'm not a real smoker, I'm more of a social smoker. Like when I see my mates down the pub it would feel weird not to smoke, you know?" and "I used to smoke 30 a day, I'm down to five now. I could give them up completely if I put my mind to it, but I don't think I smoke enough for it to be a problem".
1. Most complainants objected that the images of people with hooks in their faces used in the posters were offensive, frightening and distressing, particularly to children; 152 complainants said the posters had upset their children (aged between two and 15 years old);
2. Many complainants objected that the TV ads were offensive, frightening and distressing, particularly to children; 103 complainants said the TV ads had upset their children (aged between three and 12 years old);
3. Slightly fewer complainants objected that the national press and magazine ads were offensive, frightening and distressing; a few were also concerned that the press and magazine ads could offend, frighten or distress children; ten complainants said the press ads had upset their children and
4. Fewer still complainants objected that the Internet ads were offensive, frightening and distressing; a few were also concerned that the Internet ads could offend, frighten or distress children; one complainant said the Internet ads had upset his child.
CAP Code (Edition 11)
BCAP TV Code
BCAP TV Scheduling Code
The Department of Health (DoH) said the ads were designed to confront smokers with the controlling nature of their addiction to encourage them to attempt to stop smoking. They acknowledged that some people might find elements of violence and misfortune in the hook metaphor but believed they would not be seriously offended, particularly because the ads aimed to protect people from the damaging effects of smoking.
They believed the number of complaints did not indicate that the ads had caused widespread offence and hard-hitting ads would always generate complaints from the general public. They said the campaign had received praise from members of the public as well as from medical experts, health organisations and charities.
DoH argued that the ads were not designed merely to attract attention or to be gratuitous. They informed the ASA that smoking was the UK's single greatest cause of preventable illness and early death, and more than 106,000 people in the UK died from smoking related illnesses each year. They told us that one in two life-long smokers would be killed by their addiction and would lose, on average, 16 years of life. They pointed out that smoking caused a range of illnesses, including various cancers, respiratory diseases and heart disease. They said over 70% of smokers wanted to give up and 9% of 11 to 15-year-olds were smokers. They argued that, in that context, the use of the hook treatment in their ads was acceptable.
DoH believed any fear created by the ads would pale into insignificance when compared to the physical and emotional harm caused to smokers (and their families and friends) who became ill or died as a result of smoking. They said the ads did not encourage or condone violence or cruelty and said the hook image was used to encourage people to stop smoking and prevent harm.
They said, instead of telling smokers about smoking-related illnesses and death, which were commonly perceived by smokers as problems for the future, the ads focused on the controlling nature of addiction to nicotine experienced by smokers every day.
They informed us that they had ensured that the posters were not placed near schools and that online advertising was placed on sites that children were not likely to visit.
DoH believed the ad promoted a way out for smokers who wanted to stop smoking, by providing support via interactive TV, a campaign website and the NHS Smoking Helpline. They sent a copy of a letter from a market research agency which stated that, when compared to other proposed advertising campaigns in a trial, the 'hook' campaign was the most engaging and had the greatest impact on smokers, ex-smokers and health care professionals.
DoH added that, since the launch of the campaign, 83,606 smokers had phoned the NHS Smoking Helpline; 545,564 had visited the gosmokefree website; 195,000 had had interactions with the TV pages and 6,743 had made contact via SMS.
The BACC said they had been aware of the TV ads' potential to distress viewers, particularly younger viewers, when they cleared them. They said they had limited the ads' exposure to children by using an ex-kids timing restriction. They told us they had toned down the images in the TV ads by ensuring that the hooks were not shown to pierce the skin of the characters. They said they worked closely with the agency to ensure that the non-piercing was clear and the hooks only pulled the cheek of the characters.
They informed us that DoH had a history of producing thought-provoking TV ads and said the use of challenging images in previous campaigns had been justified, because the ultimate aim of the campaigns was to improve public health or safety. They believed the viewing public was more able to accept provocative images in ads if they were for an organisation promoting health and safety, instead of for a commercial advertiser.
The BACC felt the images were not offensive or gratuitous nor encouraged dangerous behaviour. They considered that, with the appropriate timing restriction, the campaign was unlikely to cause widespread or serious offence. They said the image of the hook conveyed that smoking was an addiction and that DoH offered a series of strategies to help individuals overcome addiction.
The Daily Mail said they had received one complaint about the national press ad. They acknowledged that some readers could find the ad offensive but believed the message of the campaign justified the powerful images used. They apologised to any readers who had been offended, but noted they made up a very small proportion of the Daily Mail's readership.
The Mail on Sunday said they had not received any complaints. They said it was their editor's decision as to whether ads were acceptable. They pointed out that the campaign had run across a wide variety of media.
The Daily Mirror and The Sunday Mirror said the aim of the national press ad was to change people's behaviour by shocking them into thinking about their relationship with cigarettes. They said the images used in the campaign were less shocking than images that had recently featured in the news.
The Sun said they had not received any complaints. They said, because the campaign had run in a wide variety of media and was designed to shock to a limited extent only, they were happy to use the ads.
The Herald said, because the national press ad intended to emphasise the negative impacts of tobacco addiction, it was reasonable for DoH to use strong imagery to illustrate their point. They said they had not received any complaints.
TV Times believed their readers would not be offended by the magazine ad, because it was carefully targeted and because the campaign had also run on TV and in other media.
The Daily Express, the Sunday Express, The Star, TV Choice and TV Quick did not comment on the complaints.
The ASA acknowledged that smoking was the UK's single greatest cause of preventable illness and early death, and that promoting NHS services that helped smokers quit was an important public service.
We considered that, although the posters images were shocking, they had the worthwhile purpose of discouraging smoking. We considered that, because adults were likely to understand the seriousness of the anti-smoking message, the posters images were unlikely to cause them serious offence or distress.
We noted, however, the posters showed the hooks clearly piercing the cheeks of the addicted smokers who, we considered, looked distressed and in pain. We noted that, although the posters had not been placed near schools, they had appeared in places where they could easily be seen by children. We considered that, although the posters highlighted the perils of tobacco addiction and discouraged smoking, because they were untargeted, and realistically and graphically showed the piercing of the cheek with a hook, they were likely to frighten and distress children.
The posters breached CAP Code clauses 9.1 and 9.2 (Fear and distress) and 47.2 (Children). We also investigated the posters under CAP Code clause 5.1 (Decency) but did not find them in breach.
We noted that, although the TV ads had been given an ex-kids restriction, which was likely to prevent most very young children from seeing them, they would still be shown at times when they could be seen by older children. We noted 103 complainants had referred to children aged between three and 12 years old who had been frightened and distressed by the TV ads. We considered that, although ads (a) and (c) highlighted the perils of tobacco addiction and discouraged smoking, the depiction of an adult being dragged along the ground by a line attached to a hook pulling on the inside of his or her cheek was likely to frighten and distress older children as well as very young ones. For that reason, we considered that the ex-kids restriction on ads (a) and (c) was insufficient. However, we noted the ads did not show the hooks graphically piercing the cheeks of the people depicted and considered that the unrealistic imagery of a person being pulled along the floor by a hook, in the context of an ad that was discouraging smoking, was unlikely to cause serious or widespread offence to adult viewers.
We considered that the ex-kids restriction on the follow-up TV ads (b) and (d) was sufficient because those ads, which did not show the man and woman being dragged across the floor but merely showed them removing and discarding the hooks from their cheeks, were unlikely to frighten or distress children.
TV ads (a) and (c) breached CAP (Broadcast) TV Advertising Standards Code rules 7.3.6 (Children - Distress) and 7.3.7 (Children - Use of scheduling restrictions) and CAP (Broadcast) Rules on the Scheduling of TV Advertisements 4.2.3 (Particular separation of advertisements and programmes - Treatments unsuitable for children).
We also investigated TV ads (a) and (c) under CAP (Broadcast) TV Advertising Standards Code rules 6.1 (Offence) and 6.2 (Violence and cruelty) but did not find them in breach.
We investigated TV ads (b) and (d) under CAP (Broadcast) TV Advertising Standards Code rules 6.1 (Offence), 6.2 (Violence and cruelty), 7.3.6 (Children - Distress) and 7.3.7 (Children - Use of scheduling restrictions) and CAP (Broadcast) Rules on the Scheduling of TV Advertisements 4.2.3 (Particular separation of advertisements and programmes - Treatments unsuitable for children) but did not find them in breach.
3. & 4. Not upheld
We considered the Internet ads to be less graphic than the posters. We also considered that, unlike the posters, the press, magazine and Internet ads were unlikely to be seen by children. We concluded that they were unlikely to cause serious distress or offence to adults, who were unlikely to find the shocking nature of the ads disproportionate to the seriousness of the anti-smoking message.
We investigated the national press, magazine and Internet ads under CAP Code clauses 5.1 (Decency), 9.1 and 9.2 (Fear and distress) and 47.2 (Children) but did not find them in breach.
We told DoH not to repeat the posters and told them that the TV ads ex-kids restriction was insufficient.
Adjudication of the ASA Council (Broadcast)
Adjudication of the ASA Council (Non-broadcast)