Advertising watchdog bans St John Ambulance ad after independent review

The Advertising Standards Authority has overturned its previous decision to reject a complaint about the accuracy of data used in the advert

St John Ambulance advert
St John Ambulance advert

The advertising watchdog has overturned its previous decision and banned a St John Ambulance advert featuring a man surviving cancer but then choking to death at a barbecue.

The Advertising Standards Authority had previously rejected a complaint made by the fact-checking organisation Full Fact about the accuracy of data used in the TV and internet adverts in a ruling published in July.

But Full Fact appealed against the decision and the ASA announced today that it had overturned its original ruling after an independent review. It said the advert should not appear again in its current form.

The advert's on-screen text said: "First aid could help prevent up to 140,000 deaths every year. The same number of people that die from cancer." The advertisement received 144 complaints in 2012, making it the 10th most complained about advertisement of that year. 

Full Fact said the claim that first aid "could help prevent up to 140,000 deaths every year" was misleading and could not be substantiated.

St John Ambulance said it had calculated the figure by adding up all the deaths from causes that could be prevented or where survival could be helped with first aid, such as heart attacks and choking. But Full Fact said that only a proportion of these deaths, not all of them, could have been avoided with first aid.

St John Ambulance told the ASA that there was little research to assess the effectiveness of first aid in preventing deaths from the medical conditions they had used to calculate the figure in the advert. This is because such research would require a trial in which half the patients were effectively denied lifesaving treatment, and this was unlikely to be approved by a medical ethics board, the charity said.

On the recommendation of the advertising advice body Clearcast, St John Ambulance said it had worded the advert to make it clear that first aid could help prevent the deaths but would not definitely do so.

The ASA said today that the claim in the advertisement was misleading because the figure had not been substantiated. A spokesman for the ASA said: "We told St John Ambulance to ensure that the claim it made accurately reflected the nature of the substantiation for it."

The spokesman said those 144 complaints were about harm and offence, which were not upheld and remain so. Full Fact's complaint about the accuracy of the advertisement was a separate investigation.

St John Ambulance said it was considering whether it could take legal action over the ruling.

Steve Conway, director of brand marketing, communications and fundraising at the charity said: "We’re extremely disappointed with the ASA’s decision to reverse their original ruling and our legal advisers are exploring avenues.

"The advert was approved by Clearcast, who we worked with from the outset to ensure we were transparent and that it complied with the Broadcast Committee of Advertising Practice code.

"Despite the ASA ruling that we can’t use the claim in advertising, we still stand by our analysis that first aid could help prevent up to 140,000 deaths every year. We believe this figure illustrates as accurately as is possible, within current medical and ethical limitations, the impact that first aid can have between life and death. Our work is vital if we’re to reduce the number of lives being needlessly lost each year."

Will Moy, director of Full Fact, said: "We’re pleased that our research has been backed by the ASA and sorry that St John Ambulance still refuses to publish the research behind the claims it made."

In response, a spokeswoman for St John Ambulance said it had given the data to the ASA and Clearcast but not to Full Fact.

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