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Video: Do anti-smoking ads go too far?

By
TODAY contributor
updated 4/2/2009 9:43:56 AM ET 2009-04-02T13:43:56

Television anti-smoking ads have gotten increasingly graphic, even gruesome, in the past seven years, but a new ad rolled out by the New York City Department of Health goes for the heartstrings even while detractors say it hits below the belt.

In the ad, a little boy is shown standing alone in a train station while separated from his mother. His look of puzzlement turns into abject fear as tears roll down his face. 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.”

While the public service ad seeks to hit parental smokers where they live — with their children — questions are being raised about whether the ad goes too far in having a little boy, who some fear may not be acting, sob before the camera in an effort to get smokers off tobacco. But speaking to Matt Lauer live on TODAY Thursday, advertising agency owner and CNBC personality Donny Deutsch clapped his hands on seeing the ad and said, “Bravo.”

“A great ad is a one-on-one sales pitch,” Deutsch told Lauer. “Say you smoke. If I said to you, ‘Matt, stop smoking, it’s going to hurt your lungs.’ But if I say, ‘Hey, Matt, you’ve got kids, how about if your boy’s team won a Little League game without his dad?’, that’s going to get to you.”

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The controversial ad is part of a one-two punch New York City officials hope to deliver to hit a target goal of having 20,000 smokers kick the habit. Along with the ad, adapted by the NYC Health Department from one originally produced in Australia, a new 62-cents-a-pack federal tax has now pushed the price of cigarettes in the Big Apple upward of $10 a pack, hitting smokers squarely in the pocketbook.

Is he really crying?
The crying-boy ad has sparked lively debate. On a New York Times Web site forum, many hailed the ad and even called for an eventual, outright banning of smoking. But the ad found nearly as many detractors. One wrote, “This ad campaign is not about tugging at the heartstrings, it’s about manipulating the viewer’s emotions.”

Another called the ad “atrocious, offensive and irresponsible.” Still another called into question the use of the crying child, writing, “Those emotions looked too real to be considered just acting.”

On TODAY, Lauer questioned Deutsch on how the child was brought to cry after losing his mommy in the ad: “This kid can’t be more than 4. Isn’t it fair to assume they actually put the kid in a situation like that, and people are angry about that?”

Deutsch, chairman of Deutsch Inc., told Lauer he had no direct knowledge on how the child actor was made to cry, but he firmly believes the ends justify the means in the war against smoking.

“Kids are very good actors,” Deutsch said. “Maybe sometimes they make a kid cry, but if it saves 20,000 lives for five seconds of crying, I’ll take it.”

A similar ad airing in Britain was deemed so scary for children it only airs after 7:30 p.m., but Deutsch noted the New York City ad is actually tame in comparison.

TODAY
Ad expert Donny Deutsch defends the ad as 'compelling.'
“I think the British ad crossed a line by showing a child talking about their mother dying from smoking,” he told TODAY. “I don’t think you need to go that far to get the message across. The ads airing here don’t scare kids — but you can’t watch them and not be affected.”

Lauer professed to being spellbound by the ad, telling Deutsch, “I was completely glued to it, but I didn’t know if I was glued to it in a good way or a bad way.”

“Win-win, that works,” Deutsch told Lauer. “Good, bad, either word is fine. It’s compelling and if that doesn’t get you to stop smoking, nothing will.”

Defending the message
New York City officials claim the ad, which began airing Tuesday, is a matter of fighting fire Video: Do anti-smoking ads go too far? (on this page) with fire when it comes to widespread cigarette advertising. The National Cancer Institute reports cigarette manufacturers spend some $37 million a day on average to hawk their product, a whopping $13.5 billion per year.

Dr. Thomas Freiden, who has served as New York City’s health commissioner since 2002, when the city began targeting smokers in earnest, said he believes the ad hits the target.

“What we’re trying to do is bring home to people the results of smoking,” Dr. Freiden told NBC. “For this ad, you get the sense that not only might you suffer and die, but you’re going to leave your family behind.”

Along with increasing taxes that now make smoking a $250-a-month or more habit for New Yorkers, Freiden says the seven-year campaign has caused a decrease of 300,000 adult smokers in the city.

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