Friday, April 03, 2009


A recent stop-smoking commercial by an Australian ad agency ( has stirred up quit the controversy this morning.

The gist of the 1-minute segment is this: 
Mother and 4-yr-old son walk hand-in-hand in a bustling train station. Mother slips out of child's sight. Boy stands alone in the middle of a bustling crowd of nameless faceless people, turning around and around, scanning the sea of bodies, searching for his mother.  For those 60 seconds, we watch him reach complete and utter desolation.  The tag line: "If this is how your child feels after losing you for a minute, just imagine if he lost you for life."
Does it make its point?

Take a look for yourself:

So, this morning, Matt Lauer asked the director on the Today Show whether they'd gone too far?  And where would they draw the line -- for instance, would they go so far as to hurt a child, even just a little, in order to get their point across?  He also spoke with Donny Deutsch regarding the measurement of "success" of this particular campaign.

Take a look at The Today Show segment below:
Another article tried to answer the same question by saying how awful it would be to have an obese chronic overeater eating in front of their distraught and crying child.  Which, I have to say, I think is a pretty preposterous analogy when you consider the fact that just eating around a child, or leaving hamburger drippings on the couch, or touching their cheeks with your greasy fingers doesn't negatively affect the child's health the way 2nd-hand smoke does.

So, here's what it comes down to for me:

  • increased risk of heart attack in non-smokers
  • can cause disease and premature death in children and adults who do not smoke
  • responsible for up to 300,000 lower respiratory tract infections (such as pneumonia and bronchitis) in infants and children under 18 months, resulting in up to 15,000 hospitalizations each year, and causes 430 sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS) deaths in the United States annually
  • exposure to 2nd-hand smoke causes over 202,000 asthma episodes in children with asthma

Let's not forget that the "evil ad agency" didn't make anybody do anything.  The child's parent chose to use her child in such a way as to make a hugely impactful and potentially life-saving statement for hundreds of thousands of children and adults world-wide.

And, yes, I realize I chose the word "use," but that's because although the child is an actor, he's just too young to pull that off -- to understand what was about to happen to him.  But it was his mother that put him through that.  And not the agency.  And, truly, that is her choice.

And, of course, it begs the question of the greater good and weighing one child's pain against the potential good of the masses.  And, yes, where do we draw the line, Matt?  But let's not get crazy, people.  This wasn't about someone choosing to cause their child permanent and irreparable damage.  And you can argue that this is abuse all day long.  For me, personally, I don't agree.  

How many of us have left a child crying in their crib while we go to the bathroom, answer the door, sleep an extra 5 minutes?

If you're arguing that this is abusive, then anytime you've ever made a choice to leave your child in a distressed state (think about sleep training, the first day of school, babysitters, etc), then you, too, have abused your child.

That extremist view aside...

The child was not injured.  Yes, he was distressed.  And I think it bothers us most precisely because we HAVE seen that look on the faces of our own children, as they get distracted and miss turning the corner with us at Target or the grocery store.  And we, as parents, feel equally distressed in that moment of missing.  That blood-curdling moment of sheer internal panic.  And then they come racing around the aisle, or come out from behind a clothes rack, and we're awash in alternating waves of relief and anger.  And I think it's a combination of all the feelings above that's riling us up over this commercial.

But, people, his parent consented.  And after she intentionally "lost" him, she was there to swoop him up and comfort him and reassure him, just as so many of us have done.

How is this any different from a parent choosing to vaccinate their child against, say, measles, and holding their arms and legs down while the nurse inflicts physical, emotional, and psychological pain on their child for that 10 seconds that could potentially save their and countless other lives?

#3)  MARKETING 101
At the heart of the matter is that people are most up in arms about these 60 seconds because the agency managed to do exactly what they intended to do:  they manipulated us.

You felt tricked, deceived, even sick to your stomach, and powerless to do anything about it in that moment.

Does that make it wrong? I don't think so.  Isn't all marketing organically manipulative? You betcha!  Are all marketing campaigns ethically and morally sound?  Oh, God no.  Point in fact, those ridiculously lewd 5-dollar-foot-long Subway commercials. But I digress...

So maybe instead of focusing on whether or not the agency or the mother went too far with this one, which really, I think, is moot because that child's parent made a choice over which you have no say, try to focus instead on the following:

Wasn't it obviously a compelling commercial?  

Doesn't it make you stop and think? 

Isn't the fact that it is so heartbreaking enough to give you even a moment's pause about the message it's trying to convey?  

And don't you think it's effective, even for 10 of those brutally painful 60 seconds, in demonstrating that smoking hurts more people than just the smoker themselves (which is not an extremist position by any stretch of the imagination -- just a proven and accepted fact that has been disguised and hidden for decades)?

And, most importantly, could this potentially be enough to make a smoker want to, seek out, and get help when the visually disgusting ads of smokers' lungs and other internal organs haven't proven nearly as successful in the past?

To these all, I say HELL-TO-THE-YEAH!  

Ah, but the $64,000 question remains: Would I have made the same choice as the parent in this commercial?  

You know, not in all instances, not for all causes, and not without a ton of disclaimers and if-and-buts, but, yeah, in this commercial, with the intentions that it had, with the way it was directed, and the precautions the director and parent took, and my personal belief in the positive impact it could have on millions of lives...yeah, I honestly think I would have.

But why don't I stop rambling now and let you tell me what you think?


Anonymous said...

No, I do not think it is child abuse, but then again, not in a million years would I agree to allow my child to be stranded in a public space - near an escalator no less, notoriously dangerous things - scared shitless they lost their parent.

Anonymous said...

We've had a few ads like this over the years, both for drinking and smoking. When you have a generation of people who only think about themselves* parenting, you have to get through to them somehow. 'Please don't smoke,' won't cut it these days.

*A direct result of too many years of conservative government in my opinion.


IIhaesa, thanks for your comment. I think I read that the mother was nearby, that they had CPS reps nearby, that there was a large crew, and that all those faceless people were actors, so although the boy was never in any real danger, he was scared shitless, which seems to be the most controversial point.

Is it ever worth it for a parent to make that kind of sacrifice for a greater good?


tracer123, thanks for the local point of view. We've had those commercials showing in disgustingly graphic detail what happens to the insides of a smoker, and that doesn't seem to help either.

But I guess the commercial begs, will this help? Or does it lose too many people in the uproar?