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.

Jeff Stier is an associate director of the American Council on Science and Health (, This piece also appeared on