Yesterday the Advertising Standards Authority listed the 10 most complained about adverts for 2015. Several of the ads related to health issues, including two smoking related advertisements, but the one that really caught my eye was the British Heart Foundation advertisement.
In the advertisement Ben is seated in his classroom at his desk. The classroom is full but his father crouches down in front facing him and Ben asks him why he is there. His father tries to tell him in a quiet voice that he won’t be there anymore and that he is sorry. As both Ben and the viewer try to take in what is being said, the headmaster appears at the door and asks Ben to come outside, by which time you realise that Ben is about to be given the life changing news that his father has died of a heart attack.
Like many when I first saw this advert I found it very moving. The advertisement succeeded in conveying the immediacy of the shock of receiving such terrible news, completely out of the blue. Indeed such is the sudden impact of the shock that Ben simply seems to be trying to process the information he has just been given, as though he has not had time yet to emotionally react or think about what it means. By the time the headmaster opens the door, you feel that you know what is coming next. You are left wondering at how Ben’s life has changed forever in an instant by an outside event over which he had no control. You feel sorry for Ben, desperately sorry.
One reason why this advertisement chimed with me is that I lost my own father prematurely to a heart attack. I was present when the heart attack occurred and I remember sitting with my arm around my mother in the ambulance speeding towards the hospital wondering what the outcome would be. I remember waiting at the hospital as other family members arrived and then after sometime being given the final news. Little did I know then that a number of years later I would experience a similarly shocking event, a phone call in which I would be given the devastating news that another member of my immediate family had died suddenly, leaving a young child.
However the other reason why I think this advertisement is so strong and believable is because it leaves the viewer wondering what the future holds for Ben now that his father has died. My own experience has taught me that the consequences of someone passing on can be profound and long lasting for other family members in all sorts of ways. A sudden death in the family is a game changer for everyone.
I have to confess that when I first saw the advertisement, before I knew the identity of the advertiser, I thought it was advert for life insurance. It is not clear whether or not Ben’s father had life insurance and of course for Ben and his family the first things on their minds would be the funeral arrangements, their grief and their other emotions. However sooner or later practical questions would need answering. How much capital and income will Ben’s mother have? If they have a mortgage is there enough to pay it all off? If not will Ben’s mother have sufficient income to pay the mortgage and keep the family going, or will the family need to move and will Ben have to change schools? What about further down the line as Ben grows older? How will the choices and options available to him match up with what his father would have wished for him? To what extent might those options be limited by a lack of available funds?
In my own case, my father was turned down for life insurance and he was therefore unable to leave any significant financial resource for our family. Thankfully there have been significant developments since then both in terms of the availability of life insurance for people with health conditions and in the medical treatment of heart conditions.
But getting back to the advertisement who were the complainers, why were they complaining and were they right to complain? The advertising standards authority said there were 219 complainers who considered the advertisement to be “distressing for adults and children” (although it seems that steps were taken to avoid showing the advert during children’s programming).
It would not be surprising if the advertisement evoked distress in the minds of some who had lost a close family member or friend and inevitably some people might be upset by what they saw. However just because it might have made for difficult or uncomfortable viewing, does that mean the advert should have been banned? The positive purpose of the advert was to draw public attention to the valuable work of the British Heart Foundation and to show us that heart disease can be fatal with profound life changing consequences. Hopefully the advertisement might have inspired many to consider what now lay ahead for Ben and others like him similarly affected. Viewers might also have been moved to consider what action they might take to reduce their own coronary risks (lose weight, more exercise, stop smoking, etc.) and perhaps to review whether they have sufficient family life insurance protection. Viewers might also consider getting involved in supporting the work of the BHF. For example the Nation Of Lifesavers project aims to make significant improvements in the way the nation deals with cardiac arrests, so as to make a much needed step change in the number of survivors of cardiac arrest outside of hospitals.
Finally, it’s worth mentioning that there is clear evidence in the UK that many families do not carry sufficient life insurance to protect and support the needs of the family should the worst happen. It is frankly astonishing to read various researched reports consistently suggesting that at least 50 % of mortgage holders do not have life insurance to cover their mortgage. One of the reasons sometimes given by those who perhaps should have life insurance but who don’t, is that they don’t like talking about death. But sticking your head in the sand because you feel uncomfortable thinking about death is no excuse for leaving your family and children exposed to the financial consequences of your premature death.
So hats off to the British Heart Foundation for their thought provoking and powerful advertisement. We applaud you!
Andrew Wilkinson February 24th, 2016
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