Does the ‘Lost Little Boy’ Anti-Smoking Ad Go Too Far?

Apr 2, 2009 12:08pm

ABC’s Tom Johnson from New York:

A new anti-smoking ad that features a frightened four-year-old boy separated from his mother in a crowded train station has hit a nerve.

The ad, originally produced by the Australian anti-smoking group Quit Victoria, was filmed with a "real-life mother and son acting team," but the child actor, Alexander, burst into real tears when his mother Annette briefly walked away from him.

The boy’s emotional panic — seen in the ad for a grueling 17 seconds — actually only lasted a few seconds, according to the organization; the director used five cameras and edited the footage together to seem longer.
Now running in New York City, the ad is part of an aggressive anti-smoking campaign by the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene.

"The whole point of these ads is to bring home to smokers what smoking is doing and will do to them, their children and their families," said Dr. Tom Frieden, New York City Health Commissioner.

In the ad, a little boy, identified as Alexander, walks into a train station with his mother.  Soon the mother releases the little boy’s hand.  He is alone amidst the crowd.  It slowly dawns on him that his mother is no longer there.  He grows upset and is soon crying.  The announcer then says, "If this is how your child feels after losing you for a minute, just imagine if they lost you for life." The message: Quit smoking now…for your child.

The ad packs an emotional punch and diverges from the anti-smoking ads that tried to gross the viewer out of the habit.  Remember the ad where the man had to breathe through a hole in his throat?

Few cities in the country have taken a more graphic approach in their anti-smoking campaign than the New York City, which has pushed the envelope with the apparent goal of shocking viewers to send a life-saving message.  Another way to do it, raise the price of a pack.  Wednesday, a new tax kicked in raising the price of cigarettes in places such as New York City to above $9.

Entitled "Separation" by the Department of Health, the ad first aired in Australia as part of Quit Victoria’s 2008 television campaign.  The organization has come out in defense of its procedure, stressing that the child actor was safe at all times. Before filming, they say that the actor was well versed in what was going to happen and was told it was going to be an exercise in "make-believe." 

Still, though the child was an actor, it appears that his fear and tears were real, which has raised eyebrows. One blogger wrote, "This spot is atrocious, offensive and irresponsible."

Does this cross a line?  Or do these ads need to cross lines in order to get people’s attention, to awake them to the dangers of smoking?

This ad, along with two others, entitled "Cigarettes Are Eating You and Your Baby Alive," and "Cigarettes are Eating You Alive," are set to air on local and cable stations in New York City through April 15. Due to the nature of content, they will not air during any children’s programming.

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