At least 1.5 million people around the world have been hoaxed in a new campaign about the dangers of spending time in the sun.
Hundreds of thousands of Internet users in search of the perfect tan logged on to the Web site, http://www.computertan.com after an advertising campaign promised them the chance to get their tans topped up while sitting at their desk, thanks to "revolutionary new technology."
McCann Erickson and U.K. skin cancer charity Skcin launched "a fake company called ComputerTan" and then designed an elaborate Web site to draw the attention of Internet users, McCann Erickson New Business Director Simon Hill told ABC News.
When users click on the site, they are first directed to an infomercial fronted by a fictional spokesperson, "TV Presenter Hannah Yasmin," who offers them a free trial of the Tan-tastic service. All they need to do is cozy up to their screen, literally, as the site promises them a dose of ultraviolet light "encouraging the production of vitamin D and creating a deeper, longer-lasting natural tan" if they look closely at the screen.
As the screen fills up with images of UV tanning tubes, users are suddenly confronted with graphic photographs of skin cancers, a link to Skcin's Web site and the message, "Don't be fooled, UV exposure can kill."
Hill told ABC News that the campaign "was designed to engage those most at risk of developing skin disease and those most difficult to reach via conventional advertising. The fact that so many people fell for the ComputerTan hoax demonstrates the frightening truth that getting a tan – regardless of the risk – is still appealing for many people."
Richard Clifford, one of the founders of Skcin, added, "we want to educate the young, there is a pandemic of young people using sunbeds – we want to regulate the use of sun beds."
"The U.K. government spends £75m ($113.3m) annually on the treatment of skin cancer, they need to shift the emphasis to prevention – I mean, this is a wholly preventable disease," Clifford said.
Clifford set up the charity, together with his daughter Kathryn, after losing his wife Karen to skin cancer in 2005 at age 61.
"We have been amazed by the number of hits the Web site has got – we have had an amazing response from the U.K., the U.S., and Australia," Clifford said. "There is no national skin cancer charity in the U.K. -- this has helped to raise our profile and hopefully will lead to an increase in funding."
According to Skcin, five people die every day from skin cancer in the UK; more than any other form of cancer. Meanwhile the popularity of sunbeds among young people – girls in particular – seems to only be growing. A 2008 survey presented at the British Association of Dermatology conference showed that 41 percent of 11- to 16-year-olds used sunbeds at least once every three months, and 18 percent used them at least once a week.
Skcin's founders want England and Wales to follow the lead of Scotland, which recently made it illegal for under-18s to use sun beds.
After the success of this campaign, and the recent news of a 10-year-old girl in South Wales suffering burns to 70 percent of her body during an unsupervised session on the sunbed, it may not be too long before the use of sun beds by under-18s in England and Wales becomes a thing of the past.