ASA Ruling on Cancer Research UK
Cancer Research UK
The Angel Building
407 St John Street
30 January 2013
Number of complaints:
Summary of Council decision:
Two issues were investigated both of which were Upheld
A circular, for Cancer Research UK, delivered in a plain brown envelope through recipients’ letter boxes stated “It Doesn’t Matter To Me Who YOU ARE” in place of the address. A letter inside stated "EVERYONE KNOWS ME. And they know the devastation I cause. I didn't think it could happen to me. That's what a lot of people say. The truth is it happens to most of more than one in three. For those people, their friends and families, things won't ever be the same again. And it's all down to me. I AM CANCER ... I don't care who I hurt... WHY AM I WRITING TO YOU? I used to have everything my own way. When someone tried to fight me, I always won. But now it's getting harder. More and more of you are ganging up on me. People are giving money and funding research. Scientists are outsmarting me. And there's one group threatening me the most. CANCER RESEARCH UK ARE FIGHTING BACK. They've been coming after me for a long time. Now they're saying that someday soon, I won't be a death threat anymore ... I'M STILL HERE. But before you think the fight is over, you're forgetting one thing. The people at Cancer Research UK need more funding to carry on their research ... But times are tough. Any money isn't easy to come by. Sure, twice as many people might survive compared to 40 years ago. But I'm still tearing lives apart. Every two minutes I take hold of another person ... DON'T GIVE MONEY. So let me give you some advice. Don't donate to Cancer Research UK. I'm sure you have better things to spend your money on than trying to beat me. Don't you?". A donations leaflet and a business reply envelope was also enclosed in the envelope.
1. One complainant challenged whether the envelope was clearly identifiable as marketing material.
2. Three complainants challenged whether the envelope and the content of the letter was threatening and likely to cause serious distress to past or current sufferers of cancer, or other vulnerable members of the public.
CAP Code (Edition 12)
1. Cancer Research UK (Cancer Research) said it was "irrational, illogical and not in accordance with the Code" to consider the envelope in isolation from its contents. They also said the envelope was intended to have an element of intrigue, in order to entice people to open it and did not believe that the message “It doesn’t matter to me who you are” was threatening, because it made clear that no one in particular was being targeted. They said the message was consistent with the entirety of the circular and the envelope was merely a teaser in respect of what it contained. They also said the reverse of the envelope that recipients received clearly stated "Cancer Research UK" and their registered charity details. They believed that it would be apparent to anyone who turned over the envelope in order to open it that it was a marketing communication from Cancer Research UK.
2. They believed that the average consumer would not consider the envelope and letter in isolation, but as it formed part of the entire circular that also included an eye-catching, full colour donations leaflet and a business reply envelope that clearly featured Cancer Research branding. They said it was not personally addressed to individuals and believed that recipients were likely to be aware of the facts relating to cancer, but may not be aware of the impact of donations.
The said the circular was part of a broader campaign targeting a new demographic that sought to empathise with common reactions to cancer and highlighted cancer as a disease that did not discriminate and could cause distress. They also said personifying cancer as an enemy that must be "fought" with was a common reaction to cancer and those sufferers used this as a way of releasing painful emotions by, for example, talking to cancer directly, writing letters and addressing it as a person they would like to fight and vent their anger, despair and sadness on. It was this personification of cancer that was addressed in the letter, in order to make it seem less invincible, and was intended to highlight the progress being made in the battle against cancer and emphasise that there was also much more to be done.
While they appreciated that people who had suffered from cancer or were current sufferers may be particularly sensitive to ads concerning the subject, they believed that the circular set out facts that were widely known and commonly repeated and that merely recognised the unfortunate reality that cancer affected everyone in some way. They also believed that the letter was clearly a piece of fiction and recipients were likely to have read the additional material and realise the purpose of the ad as a charity appeal, and that any distress would therefore have been transitory and was justified in its aim to raise money.
The text "It Doesn’t Matter To Me Who YOU ARE" appeared on the front of the envelope in place of the address. While the rear of the envelope stated the name of the advertiser and its registered charity number in small print, the ASA considered that this did not make clear that it contained marketing material from Cancer Research UK. Furthermore, we considered that, when delivered directly to recipients own homes, the text was likely to be received as a threatening message and, in that context, recipients were likely to open the envelope without paying attention to any small print on the back. The envelope was not clearly identifiable as marketing material and we therefore concluded that it breached the Code.
On this point the ad breached CAP Code (Edition 12) rule 2.1 (Recognition of marketing communications).
The ASA accepted that cancer was a distressing subject for many people and could cause distress when presented in any medium. However, we considered that any distress inherent in the subject of cancer ought to be balanced by the worthwhile purpose of raising awareness of it. The complainants received all enclosures but were specifically concerned about the appearance and content of the envelope and letter. They expressed their understanding of the need to raise awareness and money for Cancer Research, but believed that this message was not balanced by what they perceived to be the aggressive and threatening manner in which it was presented.
The text "It Doesn’t Matter To Me Who YOU ARE" appeared in place of the address and the font resembled that produced by an old-fashioned typewriter. We considered that the appearance and content of this message was likely to be received as a threatening message and, when delivered directly to recipients own homes, was likely to cause serious distress to some members of the public, particularly those who were vulnerable.
The letter featured the same font that appeared on the envelope and included text that stated "EVERYONE KNOWS ME ... And they know the devastation I cause ... I AM CANCER ... I don't care who I hurt ... WHY AM I WRITING TO YOU? I used to have everything my own way ... I'M STILL HERE”. We considered that the content of the letter created a threatening tone which, when delivered as a circular, in the form of a letter from “cancer”, was likely to cause serious distress to those who had been directly or indirectly affected by cancer and other vulnerable members of the public. While the last heading on the first page of the letter stated “CANCER RESEARCH UK ARE FIGHTING BACK” and a donations leaflet and a business reply envelope were also enclosed within the envelope, we did not consider that this would take away from any distress caused by the envelope and letter. We considered that the appearance and content of the envelope and letter was likely to cause serious distress to some recipients and therefore concluded that they breached the Code.
On this point the ad breached CAP Code (Edition 12) rule 4.2 (Harm and offence).
The ad must not appear again in its current form. We told Cancer Research UK to ensure future ads did not cause serious distress and were clearly identifiable as marketing material.