Is Anti-Smoking Commercial Child Abuse?

by | April 3, 2009 at 10:36 AM | TV News

Was a new anti-smoking commercial child abuse? Does it go too far?

The ad, part of a graphic series of commercials the NY Department of Health running in New York City, features a four-year-old boy separated from his mother in a train station. Standing alone amid the bustling crowd of adults, he dissolves from confusion into tears.

A voice-over then says, “This is how your child feels after losing you for a minute. Just imagine if they lost you for life.

The heartbreaking scene wasn’t just acting. The little boy really did lose sight of his mother during the making of the ad.

“And he did shed some real tears … but it was a very brief moment,” Fiona Sharkie, the executive director of the Australian anti-smoking organization that produced the ad, told Today’s Matt Lauer Friday. “Within seconds of those tears being shed, he was in his mother’s arms and giggling.”

.

Reaction has been strong and immediate. “Was a line crossed?” asked the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. The Chicago Sun Times asked, “Did this anti-smoking ad go too far?”

According to Sharkie, Australian child-protection officials supervised the shoot.

“Alex is a terrific young actor and he and his mother Annette are a terrific acting team. This was an ad that we made with enormous sensitivity,” Sharkie told Lauer. “Both Alex and his mother were fully briefed and rehearsed the whole commercial before we made it.”

Former ad man Donny Deutsch defended the ad, arguing a few tears were fine if it made people stop smoking. Ad Age’s Ken Wheaton agreed, writing, “I agree with Donny. Who gives a rat’s rear end if a few people are offended by a child crying? This is a damn good ad and it does exactly what it’s supposed to do.”

Controversy aside, the commercial packs an emotional whallop. “I get what they are trying to do and they really do make you think. But this one started last wk and I was like OMG. S/O changed the channel because it made me cry,” a woman wrote on babycenter.com. Many others echoed that sentiment.

But the real question, as Lauer asked, is this: Is it ever OK to traumatize a child, even if it’s for a well-intentioned commercial?