A TV ad for Surrey Police, seen on 4 August 2017, depicted a phone sitting on a table next to a sofa. A baby or young child could be heard crying through the adjacent wall. Text appeared on the screen stating “Hello, Surrey Police 999 emergency. My neighbour’s kids are being noisy”. “Noisy”, written in blue text, was alternated with “abused”, written in red, several times. This was followed by a black screen with the Surrey Police logo and text stating “Not all calls are policing matters. To report noisy neighbours, contact your Council”. Further text stated “When it is a policing matter Surrey Police will be there for you. Think twice. Is your call a policing matter?”.
The complainant, who noted that noise from children could be due to them being in a harmful situation, such as witnessing domestic violence or their carers being incapacitated, objected that the suggestion that viewers should make their own decision about whether police involvement was necessary was irresponsible.
Surrey Police said that the ad was part of a wider advertising campaign. They said that within a 12-month period, more than 10,000 of the calls that they received and then deployed to were on matters that did not require or need the police to be involved.
Surrey Police said that while the footage in the ad could depict either scenario that was described in the on-screen text, in most cases the public knew what the problem was (for example, children playing outside, parties or noisy DIY), but didn’t know who to call, so they called the police. This had a significant impact, both in terms of police time involved in referring people to the appropriate authority, and dissatisfaction from the public who were passed from one agency to another. The purpose of the ad was to demonstrate the difference between what was and what was not a policing matter, and to point people in the direction of the correct agency to contact – with the example of child abuse very much being a policing matter.
The campaign had been evaluated independently through 300 face-to-face interviews with the public. This research showed that 90% of people understood the juxtapositions used in the campaign.
Clearcast said the ad was in no way designed to actively discourage genuine concern for a child’s safety. It stated that if viewers believed a situation to be a policing matter, then the police would be there. They said that the ad was deliberately ambiguous and did not depict any sounds that would indicate that the child was reacting to something going on in the home. While children might cry or scream when upset, this did not necessarily indicate an emergency. Clearcast believed that the ad struck the right balance in causing viewers to pause for thought and judge situations more closely in order to react with informed choices.
The ASA noted that the ad featured a baby or young child crying, as heard through the wall of a neighbouring house, and presented viewers with two possible explanations for this situation. The ad then stated, “Not all calls are policing matters” and “Think twice. Is your call a policing matter?”. We considered that viewers would understand this to mean that they should not call the police in situations where they were uncertain whether a child was at risk of harm, for example where there could be another, innocuous reason and they didn’t have enough information to determine whether the child was actually in danger.
While we noted that the situation depicted in the ad was commonplace and in the vast majority of cases, the sound of a young child crying would not be indicative of any abuse or neglect taking place, there was also a chance that a child was at risk. The ad evoked an ambiguous scenario in which an individual might feel an instinctive anxiety about what they were hearing, despite there not being any other factors to indicate harm taking place. We acknowledged Surrey Police’s comments about the high volume of calls they received in relation to noise from children playing outside, loud parties, etc., which detracted from the time they could devote to genuine policing matters. However, we considered that the reasons for those sources of noise were likely to be more clear-cut than the potential explanations for the situation depicted in the ad. Unlike the examples raised, the consequences of a viewer being dissuaded from reporting an instance where they felt a child might be being abused, if those suspicions turned out to be true, were extremely serious and even life-threatening.
We considered that the ad was likely to be understood as discouraging viewers from reporting problems to the police unless they were certain of what was taking place. Given the specific example used and the potential outcomes of failing to report suspected child abuse, we concluded that the ad was socially irresponsible.
The ad breached BCAP Code rules 1.2 (Social responsibility), 4.1 and 4.4 (Harm and offence).
The ad must not appear again in the form complained about. We told Surrey Police to ensure that their advertising did not imply that viewers should avoid calling the police in situations where an individual could be at risk of harm.