’I want to get cancer’ ad campaign attracts almost 100 complaints

Advertising authority says ‘teaser’ element of Irish Cancer Society campaign breached elements of its code

Almost 100 complaints were lodged with the advertising watchdog about the Irish Cancer Society’s recent campaign which contained the tag line “I want to get cancer”.

In its quarterly report, the Advertising Standards Authority of Ireland (ASAI) partially upheld some complaints it received about the campaign.

The initial advertisement appeared on the front page of The Irish Times and in other publications in January with the words "I want to get cancer", accompanied by a picture of a troubled looking man. It was followed the next day by another ad which read: "I want to get cancer and wring its bloody neck."

Another version said “I want to get cancer before it gets you”.

The second ad featured the Irish Cancer Society logo. There were also online, radio and television adverts as well as billboards built around the campaign.

The adverts in the second phase of the campaign also said that “By 2020, 1 in 2 of us will be getting cancer in our lifetime. It’s a shocking statistic, but what’s even more shocking is if we do nothing to try and stop this. So please, volunteer or donate today and help us to Get Cancer. www.cancer.ie”

The Irish Cancer Society admitted at the time that there had been some public disquiet about what it said was designed to be a provocative campaign aimed at helping people to understand rather than get the disease.

Writing in this newspaper, columnist Dr Muiris Houston labelled iut as "nothing short of sensationalistic and fear-inducing" adding that "as an exercise in promoting health it is a disgrace".

According to the ASAI the “common theme running through the complaints” was that the wording used “I want to get cancer” was “offensive, insensitive, disrespectful and upsetting to cancer survivors, current sufferers, bereaved families and those who may currently be undergoing tests or waiting on the results of same”.

Some complainants said that the teaser part of the campaign had not identified who the advertiser was or the premise behind the ad and the only text it had contained were the five words “I want to get cancer”.

While it soon became apparent that the phrase had been a play on words, that fact did not alter the opinions expressed by those who complained to the authority.

Some complainants also queried the source of the statistics which referred to the fact that by 2020 “one in two of us will be getting cancer in our lifetime” and said the basis for the statistics should have been referenced.

In response to the ASAI, the Irish Cancer Society pointed out that in Ireland every year an average of 8,000 people die from cancer with 4 in 10 cancers caused by factors over which people had control including smoking, diet, exercise, alcohol consumption, sun exposure and vaccinations.

The charity told the authority that the reason the Cancer Society had been established in the first place was because people were suffering and dying from cancer out of ignorance. It said the campaign had been created as a public awareness campaign, designed to save lives, similar to the way the Road Safety Authority had undertaken hard-hitting campaigns to reduce the number of road deaths and likewise the HSE who had devised campaigns to tackle subjects such as mental health.

Partially upholding some of the complaints the ASAI noted that the campaign started with ‘teaser’ advertisements followed by ‘reveal’ advertisements. While one of the main objectives of the campaign had been to try and make people aware of the things they could do to reduce the risk of getting cancer, the importance of early diagnosis and the various supports available, the campaign had not centred on these factors.

It said there was a tolerance in society for charity advertising to be more provocative than commercial advertising, “nevertheless, care was needed when addressing such an emotive issue as cancer, particularly when using provocative copy”.

It noted the level of complaint in this case and the distress that had been caused to complainants and it considered that the ‘teaser’ element of the campaign was in breach of elements of its code which mandate that advertisers should be mindful of consumers sensitivities and not cause undue stress.

Complaints about the statistics and figures used in the later part of the campaign were not upheld.

Conor Pope

Conor Pope

Conor Pope is Consumer Affairs Correspondent, Pricewatch Editor and cohost of the In the News podcast