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Sure, This Gruelling Anti-Child Abuse Ad Is Hard to Watch -- That's the Point

A public-service ad combating child abuse has drawn complaints because it shows too much child abuse. The ad is gruelling: It shows a little boy addressing the camera as his dad punches, slaps and kicks him in what viewers can only hope is excellent stage-blocking and not actual contact. At the end of the ad, the injured boy looks the viewer in the eye and in a querulous voice says, "I can't wait until I grow up" -- a tagline that deftly carries two different meanings:


The reaction of most viewers was summed up by "Jagadeesh," one of many commenters on Ads of the World, an advertising database closely watched in the agency business: "it's so intense, that i couldn't watch it the second time." The commercial was created for the Irish Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children by Ogilvy Dublin, a unit of WPP (WPPGY).

For some, it goes too far. Owen Connolly, a child psychologist told the Irish Herald:

It is horrific -- it turned my stomach ... It will provoke all kinds of trauma. It shouldn't be allowed to be broadcast.
That may be, but the spot has the makings of becoming this year's "Embrace Life" -- the indescribably emotional road safety ad from 2010 in which actors mime a car crash in slow motion. (Words don't do the concept justice -- just try watching the commercial without getting a lump in your throat.) "Embrace Life" was commissioned by Sussex Safer Roads, a local traffic safety group in the U.K.; the spot was so good it went viral and has been seen by more than 13 million people, proving you don't need a Coca-Cola-sized media budget to reach a mass audience.

There's a fascinating (and grim) historical context behind the ISPCC ad. Culturally, Ireland is in the process of waking up from a generations-long period in which children were routinely abused, often inside Catholic institutions, but not necessarily as part of the church sex abuse scandal:

About 35,000 children were placed in a network of reformatories, industrial schools and workhouses up to the 1980s.
More than 2,000 told the Commission to Inquire Into Child Abuse they suffered physical and sexual abuse while there.
Connolly is against the ad because many Irish adults had childhoods that were filled with routine violence:
"They are forgetting about the adults, who have suffered abuse who are in their 40s, 50s, 60s, watching the ad," Mr Connolly said.
At the same time, public service advertising in Britain and Ireland began a tradition of being as shocking as possible. PSA's are charity work, so they carry few to zero revenues for ad agencies. Thus, they get a level of creative leeway that corporate clients don't offer. The result has been some of the most horrifying campaigns you'll ever see.

The genesis of the trend was embodied by 1974's "Searching," a fire-safety ad shot from the point of view of someone searching through the ashes of a burned-out house. The soundtrack features the screams of the family who apparently died within it. The politely understated tagline was: "Please keep matches away from children." Anyone who grew up in the U.K. at the time suffered nightmares from seeing that ad:


In the following decades, European ad agencies raced to outdo each other with primetime horrors about crime, safe driving, and drug abuse that make NBC's "The More You Know ..." look like the lip-service that it is.

Ad agency Bartle Bogle Hegarty won the top prize at the IPA Advertising Effectiveness Awards in 2002 for an anti-child abuse campaign which featured photos of suicide victims. One had the caption:

John Monk. Died age four years. From the age of four, John was raped by his Grandad and a large part of him died. 22 years later he hanged himself for real.
The same client -- Barnardo's, a children's charity -- then commissioned "Break the Cycle" in 2008, in which a teenage girl is repeatedly assaulted in an accelerating film loop as she descends a spiral of drug addiction:


The new ISPCC ad borrows stylistically from "Break the Cycle." But where the Barnardo's ad was unpleasant because the violence was largely suggested, the new ISPCC ad doesn't pull away when knuckles meet flesh.

It's gripping stuff, and it proves that Madison Avenue (the concept, not the location) can go toe-to-toe with Hollywood. The fact that the ads -- which only last a few seconds -- create the kind of can't-look-away drama that most movies require 90 minutes to build is a testament to the creative firepower that corporate clients are so often afraid of unleashing.

"I can't wait until I grow up" deserves to be seen ... through the cracks in your fingers.

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