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They came for a 'Free Killer Tan' but ended up at their own funerals

by A. Pawlowski / / Source: TODAY

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Show up to get a tan, and attend your own funeral instead.

A startling new public service announcement, titled “Free Killer Tan,” hopes to get fans of indoor tanning to think about their risk of skin cancer by inviting unsuspecting New Yorkers into a fake salon, turning it into a mortuary and filming their reactions.

The PSA was sponsored by Mollie’s Fund, a nonprofit organization set up in memory of Mollie Biggane, a college student who died of melanoma at 20. It was produced by New York agency Area 23.

"By targeting tanning bed users in such a dramatic way, we know we can directly impact melanoma statistics," Maggie Biggane, Mollie's mom, told TODAY.

“We had our heart set on this concept because we knew that over the last few years statistics simply weren't doing the job,” added Tim Hawkey, managing director of Area 23.

“People knew the risks and yet they continue to go to tanning salons to the tune of 1 million people per day. We knew we really needed to get under their skin with a shocking in-your-face concept.”

Indoor tanning can cause skin cancers including basal cell carcinoma, squamous cell carcinoma, and melanoma -- the deadliest type, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Almost 10,000 Americans died of melanoma last year.

Indoor tanning is particularly dangerous for younger people, yet a government survey found 21 percent of high school girls are going to salons. Last year the Food and Drug Administration required tanning beds and sum lamps to carry warnings that they should not be used by anyone under age 18. Tanning beds are not only linked to skin cancer and wrinkles, they also cause burns severe enough to send hundreds to emergency rooms each year, according to researchers at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The PSA was filmed during a frigid week last November because tanning use goes up when the weather gets very cold, Hawkey said. The fake salon was set up near Times Square in New York and was open for three days.

About 20 people showed up. Some of them were actors, but only because the salon was in the theater district. “On that day, they were just normal people looking for a tan,” he noted.

They expected to walk into a booth, but entered a mortuary-like setting, complete with a casket, their picture, mourners, and organ music. The reactions ranged from staring and cursing to laughing nervously. “It was frightening and real,” one said. “After this, never again,” another vowed.

Mollie's family has been thrilled with the response to the PSA, her mom said: More than 300,000 people have viewed the spot.

Follow A. Pawlowski on Google+ and Twitter.

This story was originally published on Feb. 13 at 2:59 p.m.

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