ASA Adjudication on Department of Health
Department of Health t/a
231B Skipton House
80 London Road
1 April 2009
Number of complaints:
Miles Calcraft Briginshaw Duffy (MCBD)
A TV and radio ad for an anti-smoking campaign by the Department of Health (DH):
a. The TV ad began by showing a darkened room. A child's voice said "I'm not scared of the dark", then "I'm not scared of spiders" as a large spider was shown crawling in a basin. A clown's face was shown; the child's voice continued "I'm not scared of clowns". A school girl was shown standing scowling on a street corner; the child's voice said "I'm not scared of Becky Taylor". Two women were shown talking in a playground; one of them turned, smiled at the camera, said "hello", then took a drag on a cigarette. The child voice-over continued "I'm scared of my Mum smoking. I'm scared that my Mum will die". On-screen text stated "Over 2,000 people die every week in the UK from smoking related diseases". An adult voice-over stated "For help quitting, call 0800 XXXXXX now, or press red".
The TV ad was cleared by Clearcast with an ex-kids restriction, to prevent it being shown in or around programmes made for, or specifically targeted at, children.
b. The radio ad featured the same child's voice saying "I'm not scared of the dark. I'm not scared of spiders. I'm not scared of Becky Taylor. I'm scared of my Mum smoking. I'm scared that my Mum will die". An adult voice said "Over two thousand people die every week in the UK from smoking related diseases. For a free information pack to help you quit, text SCARED to XXXXX".
The ASA received 64 complaints:
1. 51 viewers were concerned that the TV ad risked causing harm or distress to children, because it preyed on their fears and would cause them stress or worry by suggesting their parents might imminently die. 24 of the viewers, at least three of whom were non-smokers, said the TV ad had distressed their children (aged between 3 and 13 years). Ten viewers believed the TV ad should not have been shown before 9pm.
2. 13 listeners thought the radio ad risked causing harm or distress to children, because it preyed on their fears and would cause them stress or worry by suggesting their parents might imminently die. Eight of the listeners, at least two of whom were non-smokers, said the ad had distressed their children.
BCAP TV Code
BCAP Radio Code
BCAP TV Scheduling Code
1. & 2. DH said they ran the 'Scared' campaign with the aim of asking smokers who were parents to reconsider their behaviour and offer them genuinely motivating reasons to quit. Research amongst smokers showed that the suggestion, that children had a real emotional fear of their parents smoking, was new information that smokers had not previously realised and found to be particularly motivating. Smokers often considered their habit to be personal and the negative health consequences something that only affected them in later life; many failed to realise the emotional and mental consequences it might have on their loved ones now.
DH said the campaign was aimed directly at adult smokers who were parents; it was not aimed at children. They felt there was no conclusive evidence that the use of children's voices in advertising attracted the attention of young children. However, they were attempting to target parents when they were with their children: research revealed smokers felt it was important to hear these messages at a time when they would be with their loved ones, because it prevented them from avoiding the facts and made them highly motivated to consider quitting. DH said, as a direct result of this campaign, 4730 smokers - more than three times the number expected for this campaign period - called the NHS Smoking Helpline or sent texts for information to help them quit. It therefore clearly showed the ads had a real effect in motivating people to quit.
DH said the potential 'social good' needed to be taken into account when assessing the potential for harm or distress, even to children. The DH education campaigns played an important role in helping to reduce the figure of over 2000 people a week dying from smoking related diseases. The use of facts in this campaign contributed towards this objective.
Clearcast endorsed DH's response. They said the TV script was discussed at length to ensure the TV ad received a timing restriction in line with similar campaigns. They considered the TV ad was inappropriate for children under eight years of age and gave it an ex-kids restriction so that it would not appear during programmes for young children who might have been distressed by it. They took into consideration whether the visuals and the tone of the TV ad would appeal to young children but concluded that the images and voice-over would have a much stronger impact on the target audience: parents who smoked. They believed the ex-kids restriction balanced the need to hit a wide enough audience with the strong message and the need to protect the young and vulnerable who may not have understood it.
The RACC said they did not feel at the time of clearance that the radio ad ran the risk of causing mental harm or distress to children by preying on their fears or by stressing or worrying them by suggesting their parents might die. Nevertheless, if that had happened, they felt there was a justifiable reason for the ad to play on fear: to influence parents who were smokers to change their behaviour to improve their health and their children's wellbeing. They did not believe that scheduling the radio ad away from when children and younger people were likely to be listening should be compulsory. They thought the child's voice did not sound in distress; she listed the things she was afraid of in an objective tone. In the RACC's view, the radio ad highlighted to parents, in an acceptable but nevertheless emotive and hard-hitting manner, the potential risk of death and the effect that not giving up smoking would have on their children. The RACC felt that it was the responsibility of the smoking parents whose children had been upset to discuss the likelihood of death through smoking and to reassure them. Similarly, it was the responsibility of non-smoking parents whose children had been upset to explain that the ad did not apply to them. They did not agree with those listeners who said the aim of the ad was to upset children by asking them to act as messengers, using pester power or pressure to change their parents' addiction. Instead, they felt that the aim was to influence parents who smoked to change their behaviour for the good of their children and their children's future.
The ASA noted the intention behind the 'Scared' campaign was to bring to the attention of parents who smoked that children had a real emotional fear of their parents smoking. We noted the ad was designed to be emotive and that DH felt it was important that smokers should hear the message in the company of their children, because it prevented them from avoiding the issue and would motivate them to quit smoking. We acknowledged that the ad was likely to have more of an impact on adult smokers if their children were present. We recognised the serious and worthwhile nature of the anti-smoking message and noted DH's argument that the campaign had been successful.
We considered the girl's voice used in the ad might attract and hold the attention of young children, particularly because she listed things she was and was not afraid of. We considered that hearing an otherwise fearless peer say she was scared her mum might die because she smoked could frighten and distress young children, particularly if they had misunderstood that the risk of death was imminent. We considered that the ad could cause distress to children if they were watching TV alone, without their parents or family to explain the ad to them.
We recognised the importance of the ad reaching its target audience - adult smokers who were parents. But we judged it necessary to balance targeting that audience with avoiding distress to young children. Given the distress caused to some of the children of the viewers who complained, we considered it necessary to impose a timing restriction to reduce further the likelihood of children seeing it. We concluded that a post 7.30pm restriction was more appropriate. After 7.30pm, young children who were still watching TV were likely to be in the company of their parents or older family members, who ought to be able to take action to reassure the children if the ad had upset them.
On this point, the TV ad breached CAP (Broadcast) TV Advertising Standards Code rules 7.4.1 (Children - Mental harm), 7.4.6 (Children - Distress) and 7.4.7 (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).
2. Not upheld
Although we noted the potential for the radio ad to cause distress to young children we considered that they tended to listen to the radio in the company of others (over breakfast or during the morning or afternoon school runs), when their parents were likely to be present and could reassure them if they were concerned by the ad. We noted the radio ad had been cleared without scheduling advice and concluded that was acceptable.
On this point, we investigated the radio ad under CAP (Broadcast) Radio Advertising Standards Code section 2, rules 8 (Scheduling) and 11 (Children and younger listeners) but did not find it in breach.
The TV ad should not be broadcast again in its current form before 7.30pm. No further action necessary on the radio ad.
Adjudication of the ASA Council (Broadcast)