The makers of a controversial anti-smoking ad let a 4-year-old boy lose sight of his mother so that he would cry on camera. But they insist that the child was not harmed and the child’s anxiety lasted a matter of only a few seconds.
“Toward the end, he lost sight of his mother, 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.”
The ad is part of a series of graphic — some would say disturbing — anti-smoking television commercials being run in New York City by the department of health.
In the ad, the little boy, identified by Sharkie only by his first name, Alexander, is shown standing alone in a train station while separated from his mother. The mother in the ad, identified as Annette, is Alexander’s real-life mom.
When he loses sight of 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.”
Sharkie, who was speaking from Victoria, Australia, said Annette and Alexander rehearsed the ad several times. He cried only during the one take that was shot, when Annette slipped out of sight in the crowd of some 150 actors and production personnel on the set. Five cameras were used to capture the moment, and Sharkie said that Australian child-protection officials were on the set at all times to ensure that Alexander was not mistreated or harmed.
“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.”
Sharkie insisted that the boy, who has made other commercials, was acting, but also acknowledged that his tears were real.
“Is it ever OK to traumatize a little boy, even if it’s to make an important point?” Lauer asked her.
“We had no intention of traumatizing the child at all and that really wasn’t the case,” Sharkie replied. “We had child protection on the set the whole time. We worked with a director that was very insistent on making just one shot.”
Sharkie’s organization is called Quit. She said the ad, which first ran last fall in Victoria, provoked similar debate there as it has in New York.
But, Lauer told Sharkie, the question remains: “Where’s the line? If it’s OK to bring a child to tears, is it OK to hurt a child a little bit?”
“Quit would never be part of something deliberately harming a child,” Sharkie said. “We made this commercial within the letter of the law.”