Australian Anti-smoking commercial draws howls as boy sobs for mommy
BY Rich Schapiro and Bill Hutchinson
DAILY NEWS STAFF WRITERS
Updated Saturday, April 4th 2009, 8:05 PM
Critics have leveled complaints
against an anti-smoking commercial
and its treatment of the
young boy featured in it.
A crying 3-year-old - the centerpiece of a heart-wrenching new anti-smoking commercial - has ignited a controversy stretching from Australia to New York City.
TV talk shows and the Internet are burning up with debates about whether the tears were real - the producers say yes - and whether they went too far to get the little boy to cry on camera.
"I think it's crossing the line a little bit to use a little kid like a prop," said Jersey City architect Elizabeth Torres, 40, a nonsmoker. "It's using the heartfelt connection people have with kids in a wrong way."
In the ad, the child bursts into tears when he suddenly realizes his mother has abandoned him in a bustling train station.
It ends with a closeup of the sniffling tot and the ominous voiceover: "If this is how your child feels after losing you for a minute, just imagine if they lost you for life."
Edwina Pearce, a spokeswoman for the Cancer Council Victoria, which produced the ad in Australia, said the boy, whom she identified only as Alexander, shed real tears.
"We didn't do anything dastardly to make him cry. He did get upset, but it was about a 10-second period that he was upset for and then his mother came back and gave him a big cuddle and everything was happy again."
And, she said, the ends justified the means.
"When the ad was shown here, we had the biggest number of calls to our local quit-smoking help line," Pearce told the Daily News. "The most important thing to us is that the ad inspires people to quit smoking."
City health officials agree.
"In order to motivate someone to quit, you have to provoke a strong emotional response," said Jenna Mandel-Ricci, director of special projects for the city Department of Health. "If we run ads that people don't remember or that don't affect people, then people won't call for help."
City officials said they were unable to tell if the ad caused a spike in calls to the local quit-smoking line.
Pearce said Alexander's mother, Annette, who also appears in the commercial, has declined numerous requests for interviews. "They requested anonymity," Pearce said.
She said Alexander was about 3-1/2 when he filmed the commercial last year in a Sydney, Australia, train station. She said the 200 or so people walking around Alexander were actors and that child protection officers were on set to ensure the boy's safety. The commercial was shot in one take so Alexander didn't have to cry over and over.
Longtime smoker Aileen Iverson, 39, of Long Island, said the ad only made her angry. "Seeing a little kid cry is not going to make me stop smoking," she said. "I think it's silly."