Ad agency scraps charity poster in conflict of interest

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The Independent Online

A charity campaign warning of the dangers of passive smoking has been scrapped by an advertising agency to prevent an embarrassing run-in with one of its most valued clients - British American Tobacco.

Ogilvy & Mather had offered to devise a free advertising campaign entitled "passive smoking kills" for a leading anti-smoking charity. It featured a hard-hitting and disturbing poster, showing a cigarette, designed like a barrel of a gun, firing a bullet.

The poster was offered to Action on Smoking and Health (Ash) without charge with a week's prominent display on a massive advertising hoarding in Canary Wharf, east London, this week.

Ash was delighted by the offer and eagerly endorsed the poster, which carried its logo. But a few weeks ago the organisation received an anxious phone call from the advertising agency saying the campaign had been cancelled.

Members of the board at Ogilvy & Mather had learnt of the anti-passive-smoking campaign and ordered it to be pulled for fear of a conflict of interest with British American Tobacco, Britain's leading cigarette manufacturer and one of its most valued clients.

Ash has not only campaigned for years for curbs on tobacco advertising, but is one of BAT's most persistent critics. It has openly and aggressively attacked tobacco manufacturers, claiming that cigarettes cause lung cancer and impotence.

A creative team at Ogilvy & Mather that does not work on the BAT account won a competition and as a prize was given the budget and media space to produce a poster for an organisation of its choice.

The nightmare scenario for the advertising firm arose after the team chose to highlight the fatal consequences of passive smoking with the disturbing poster for BAT's old adversary. Sources close to Ogilvy & Mather say executives were "furious" when they heard of the choice.

But they said BAT was unaware of "the cock-up" and had not intervened, unaware that its advertising agency was busy drawing up anti-smoking posters.

"The ad was meant to run for a week and was drawn up for all the best reasons. The cock-up was identified at a junior level and run past people higher up," said one source close to the advertising firm. "BAT didn't know about this but I can imagine what would have happened if they had found out."

British American Tobacco, which makes Lucky Strike and Dunhill cigarettes, has consistently disputed claims that second-hand smoke damages people's health and has questioned scientific claims that sharing a home or office with a cigarette smoker can cause terminal health problems, including cancer.

Ash accused Ogilvy & Mather of reneging on its offer because it was afraid of BAT. "I was really incredibly pleased when we were contacted by Ogilvy & Mather and delighted that they wanted to focus on passive smoking and were offering this ad for free. Canada Square [at Canary Wharf] is a great location and thousands of people going to work would have seen the big poster site," said Deborah Arnott, director of Ash.

"Then they rang back to say they couldn't go ahead. They sounded embarrassed but said that it would represent a conflict of interest with BAT. They seemed so in fear of ... their client that they have ditched a really good ad."

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