THE BLOG
03/19/2008 11:29 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Sick Kids Misused in Smoke Ads

Turns out the truth doesn't matter. The New York City Health
Department is standing by TV ads that show children allegedly sickened
by exposure to second hand smoke. Only problem is, the deathly-ill
kids weren't actually known to be exposed to smoke. They were just
stock footage of diseased kids.

But the kids in the pictures have the same diseases caused by second-hand smoke, so that's good enough for the Health Department.

It wouldn't be good enough, though, for the Federal Trade Commission
(FTC) according to the president of the American Academy of Advertising.

"If they were selling a commercial product, the FTC would surely
regulate this misleading ad," said Jef Richards, who is also Professor
of Advertising at University of Texas at Austin.

According to Richards, the ad is similar to the 1960s Colgate-
Palmolive shaving cream case where the Supreme Court sided with the
FTC, which sought to ban a misleading commercial that purported to
show their cream could soften "sandpaper." The ad in fact featured a
Plexigas mock-up with sand on it that only looked like sandpaper. Sure
enough, the sand came right off the "sandpaper."

And as with the kids in the Health Department's second-hand smoke
commercial, Colgate-Palmolive didn't bother to tell the viewers the
trick.

Colgate claims soaking the sandpaper in cream for eighty minutes
(necessary to get the sand off) would have been inconvenient.

The Health Department used the pictures because it would have been
hard, they say, to get pictures of kids actually sickened by second-hand smoke, since their parents presumably wouldn't grant permission
(though it doesn't sound like the health officials tried very hard).

The court found in the shaving cream case that it is materially
deceptive to convey "the false impression that they are seeing an
actual...demonstration that proves a product claim when they are not
because of the undisclosed use of mock-ups." It's a good thing for the
Health Department, then, that they aren't selling a product because
their ad certainly leaves viewers thinking the kids in the video got
sick from second-hand smoke.

Just last month, Pfizer was pressured to pull Lipitor ads that
purportedly featured artificial heart developer Dr. Robert Jarvik
rowing in a lake. In fact, Pfizer used an artificial Jarvik: the
balding, gray-haired man seen from afar in the ads was a body double.

Pfizer was roundly criticized and recently withdrew the deceptive ad.
But like the Health Department, Jarvik seems to think the deception is
fine, since the ads, regardless of their veracity, still communicate a
valid and important point.

Jarvik's defense of the switcheroo: he asserts that he was fit enough
to row (thanks to Lipitor, presumably) but writes that "at the last
minute," the insurance carrier for the commercial said the forty-
degree water was "so cold that if I had an accident, I could drown
within minutes because of hypothermia. So the production company hired
a rower experienced with that kind of racing shell for the distant
shots." It didn't hurt that the rower resembled Dr. Jarvik from afar.
He claims it never occurred to him that "anyone would consider this
dishonest."

The Health Department's excuse isn't much better. Essentially: parents
(probably) wouldn't agree to let us use pictures of kids they sickened
with their smoking, so we had to use pictures of other sick kids --
even though their specific cases had nothing to do with second-hand
smoke.

That's about as lame as Dr. Jarvik's explanation: The water was too
cold.