Winter death adverts `out to shock'

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THE TIMES and The Telegraph have refused to carry new shocking advertisements from Help the Aged, a spokeswoman for the organisation said yesterday.

Newspaper adverts and posters showing old people's bodies lying in a morgue will appear on Monday, but have already sparked a controversy over whether the charity for elderly people has gone too far in trying to raise public awareness about deaths caused by cold-related illnesses.

The posters show six pairs of feet lying on mortuary slabs, and carry the slogan "thousands of elderly people will stop feeling the cold this winter".

"We felt we had to raise the issue in a shocking way in order to attract peoples' attention. A shocking image is needed because the facts are shocking," the spokeswoman said.

More than 20,000 older people are expected to die from the cold this winter, and the charity said it believed that government fuel payments to pensioners would not be enough to stop deaths from cold-related illnesses, such as pneumonia, heart failure and hypothermia.

Some pensioners' groups are expected to object to the adverts on the grounds that they may cause undue distress to those old people who are in vulnerable circumstances as winter approaches.

The advertising agency which devised the image, Target, said that the posters and newspaper advertisments, which were due to appear in The Independent and The Guardian, had not been cleared with any industry watchdog, but were well within the boundaries of taste and decency that advertising codes set down. "We decided to go for broke on this, and are just playing the media game," said Nick Thomas, who worked on the advertisements.

But an executive at a rival agency said: "There are plenty of ways of getting the message across without suggesting that you are destined to end up dead before the year is out."

The campaign follows the uproar caused recently by the Commission for Racial Equality poster ads which shocked thousands of people by running racist advertisements in the hope of producing a reaction.

In that case, the Advertising Standards Authority banned the ads, and made a ruling that all future campaigns by the CRE should be subjected to prior approval by the industry watchdog.

The next stage with the Help the Aged's advertisments will be for the ASA to monitor any offence caused. If the public reaction is adverse, Help the Aged could, under new industry rules, also be forced to submit future advertisments for approval.

The advertisments will fuel the continuing debate over how far shock ads should go.

Help the Aged argues that its justification lies in the seriousness of its message. There were 21,462 winter deaths among older people between December 1997 and March 1998, and the organisation pointed out that it was in a mild winter.