ASA Ruling on Alzheimer’s Research UK
Alzheimer’s Research UK
15 February 2017
Number of complaints:
A TV ad, shown on various channels, for an Alzheimer's charity, was seen in November 2016. It depicted an animated story of a young girl being told that Santa had stopped delivering presents because he had developed a disease. She then travelled to see the elves, who explained that research could find a way to fix him. A voice-over at the end of the ad stated Alzheimer's disease can affect anyone. Only research has the power to change the future."
The ad was cleared by Clearcast with an ex-kids timing restriction, whereby it should not be transmitted in or adjacent to programmes commissioned for, principally directed at or likely to appeal to children under 16 years of age.
Thirty-six complainants challenged whether the ad, particularly the depiction of Santa as suffering from Alzheimer's disease, was offensive, could cause distress to children and whether it was suitable to be broadcast at times when children could see it.
Alzheimer's Research UK said the ad was the result of research, public consultation and work with families affected by dementia. The aim was to produce a creative that was sensitive to the lives of people affected by dementia, but ensured those unaffected by the condition could understand its nature and impact and recognise the need for research.
Alzheimer's Research UK carried out audience research, which included a poll of 1000 UK adults to test acceptability around the idea of Santa Claus having Alzheimer's for an awareness campaign. They stated that 76% of their respondents felt the concept was acceptable, with 73% of parents sharing the same view. They considered they had portrayed the impact of dementia on Santa sensitively and accurately. They stated that they had received tens of thousands of positive responses, shares and supporting comment via social media and significantly less than 1% expressed doubts around the approach.
They reiterated that dementia and Alzheimer's disease were serious issues that generally affected older people. Santa Claus was a relatively unusual character because he was depicted as an older person and therefore represented an opportunity to highlight the issues in a context relevant to the time of year. Alzheimer's Research UK noted there was widespread and longstanding use of Santa Claus in advertising for a range of products and services, and believed that his use to promote awareness about a cause of public concern like Alzheimer's was highly unlikely to cause serious and widespread offence. They also did not consider that the ad used unnecessary shock tactics.
Alzheimer's Research UK explained that Clearcast had cleared the ad with an ex-kids restriction. However, because the ad was developed for an adult audience, Alzheimer's Research UK decided to place the ad in airtime scheduled outside of times when younger children would be likely to see it, namely in 19:30 advertising slots or later. They allowed one exception in relation to an advertising break during an episode of Emmerdale, which itself tackled a serious dementia storyline involving a main character; the ad was then broadcast at 19:13.
Clearcast said they had been careful to consider the issue of distress to children, as Santa was an important figure to children and showing him appearing to be unwell or distressed had the potential to cause upset in young audiences. Their original advice, at script stage, was to expect that the ad should not be broadcast before 7.30pm, which they intended to confirm on seeing the visuals and getting a better idea of the mood and tone of the ad. However, on viewing the final version, although the ad was using Santa (a figure of particular importance to children) as a way to depict a serious condition that often caused distress for loved ones, they noted that the child believing in Santa was the catalyst for the condition to be researched, and he was then able to provide presents and magic to children as he had before. They noted that not only was Santa helped and taken care of, but the treatment depicted the power of research in helping overcome the condition. Although this was a potentially distressing subject, they considered it was handled in a way that would be appropriate for children to see, and to discuss with parents if they found it upsetting. Clearcast also considered that there would be children whose families had first-hand experience of dementia-related conditions.
Clearcast therefore decided that an ex-kids restriction would be appropriate to avoid the ad being seen by children too young to understand the story shown, but that no further scheduling restrictions were required.
The ASA considered that the ad was emotive and concerned a subject matter which some viewers might find upsetting, particularly those who had family members with the illness. We also acknowledged that the character of Santa was likely to appeal to children and considered that the depiction of Santa as suffering from Alzheimer's disease, and no longer being able to deliver presents, had the potential to cause discomfort to some younger children.
We considered, however, that the topic had been handled sensitively and that the story was told in a gentle, non-graphic way with a generally positive ending. We considered that the emotional nature of the appeal was proportional to the content of the ad and the seriousness of the issue being discussed. Moreover, we acknowledged that the ad had been cleared with an ex-kids restriction, whereby it would not be shown during programmes that were likely to have particular appeal to children, and especially younger children. We also noted that Alzheimer's Research UK had further chosen to only broadcast the ad after 7.30pm, with one exception.
We considered that an ex-kids scheduling restriction was appropriate, and did not consider that the scenes shown would demand stricter scheduling restrictions or a warning prior to the ad being shown.
We therefore concluded that the ad had not been scheduled inappropriately, was not irresponsible and was unlikely to cause distress to those who viewed it.
We investigated the ad under BCAP Code rules 4.1, 4.2, 4.10 (Harm and offence), 5.1 (Children) and 32.3 (Scheduling), but did not find it in breach.
No further action necessary.