A little boy is lost in a crowd his mother is nowhere in sight. His darting, desperate eyes search for her. Where is she? Confusion sets in; the boy's bottom lip starts to quiver. Am I alone? A wave of panic. And then tears and guttural wails.
This is the way Australia, and now the New York City Department of Health, are driving home the message that smoking is bad for your health. In a new, startling video created Down Under and recently exported to the Big Apple, a 4-year-old is left alone in a crowd by his mother. At the end of the ad, the audience is told, "If this is how your child feels after losing you for a minute, just imagine if they lost you for life. Quit smoking today."
Wondering how they got that tiny actor to cry so convincingly on cue? Well, his mother actually did abandon him in a crowd and he really did think he was lost. The people walking past him are extras, and his tears are real. Heartless? Maybe. Forced method acting? Sure. The admakers "went to incredible lengths to make this as good of an experience as possible," says Jenna Mandel-Ricci, of the New York City Health Department's Tobacco Control Bureau. She points out that the commercial was filmed in one take meaning the little boy went through the trauma of being abandoned only once. "This little boy is an actor," she says. "He's acted before and he's acted since." (See vintage smoking ads that promote it as a healthy habit.)
The Health Department says it was looking for a way to reach smoking parents about 400,000 of New York City's 1 million smokers live with children when it came across the Australian footage. The little-boy ad launched the same week a new federal cigarette-tax increase went into effect a double whammy in the fight against smoking. The New York City Health Department has fielded five complaint calls since the ad launched on March 30, a figure Mandel-Ricci says is dwarfed by the number of calls to the city's quitting-smoking line in the same time period, "so it's worth it."