"Irresponsible" police TV advert banned - ad that urged people NOT to dial 999 if they hear a child crying taken off air
The ad, which featured a youngster crying, urged people with "noisy neighbours" to contact their local council, rather than call the police.
But a viewer complained to watchdogs that noise from children could be due to them being in a "harmful situation" - such as witnessing domestic violence or their carers being incapacitated.
They said that the suggestion that viewers should make their own decision about whether police involvement was necessary was "irresponsible."
Top cops said the purpose of the ad was to show the difference between what was and what wasn't a policing matter.
But watchdogs ruled that the ad could dissuade viewers from reporting a potentially "life-threatening" situation, and banned it from being shown again.
The Surrey Police ad, screened in August, showed a phone sitting on a table next to a sofa. A baby or young child could be heard crying through a nearby wall.
Text appeared on screen stating “Hello, Surrey Police 999 emergency. My neighbour’s kids are being noisy”. “Noisy”, written in blue text, was alternated with “abused”, written in red, several times.
That was followed by a black screen with the Surrey Police logo and text stating: “Not all calls are policing matters. To report noisy neighbours, contact your Council."
Further text stated: “When it is a policing matter Surrey Police will be there for you. Think twice. Is your call a policing matter?”
Surrey Police said that it was part of a wider advertising campaign after more than 10,000 of the calls that they received over a 12-month period and then deployed to were regarding matters that didn't require or need the police to be involved.
Police claimed that while the footage in the ad could depict either scenario that was described in the on-screen text, in most cases the public knew what the problem was, for example, children playing outside, parties or noisy DIY, but didn’t know who to call, so they called the police.
The force claimed it had a "significant impact" - both in terms of police time involved in referring people to the appropriate authority - and dissatisfaction from the public who were passed from one agency to another.
Surrey Police said the purpose of the ad was to show the difference between what was and wasn't a policing matter, and to point people in the direction of the correct agency to contact.
The force claimed the campaign had been evaluated independently through 300 face-to-face interviews with the public, and the research showed that 90 per cent of people understood the campaign.
Clearcast, which pre-approves most TV advertising, said the ad was in "no way" designed to actively discourage genuine concern for a child’s safety.
The body stated that if viewers believed a situation to be a policing matter, then the police would be there.
Clearcast said that the ad was "deliberately ambiguous" and didn't depict any sounds that would indicate that the child was reacting to something going on in the home.
But the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) found that the ad breached rules concerning "social responsibility" plus "harm and offence" following an investigation, and ordered that it shouldn't be shown again.
An ASA spokesman said: "We considered that viewers would understand this to mean that they should not call the police in situations where they were uncertain whether a child was at risk of harm, for example where there could be another, innocuous reason and they didn’t have enough information to determine whether the child was actually in danger.
"While we noted that the situation depicted in the ad was commonplace and in the vast majority of cases, the sound of a young child crying would not be indicative of any abuse or neglect taking place, there was also a chance that a child was at risk.
"The ad evoked an ambiguous scenario in which an individual might feel an instinctive anxiety about what they were hearing, despite there not being any other factors to indicate harm taking place."
He added: "We acknowledged Surrey Police’s comments about the high volume of calls they received in relation to noise from children playing outside, loud parties, etc., which detracted from the time they could devote to genuine policing matters.
"However, we considered that the reasons for those sources of noise were likely to be more clear-cut than the potential explanations for the situation depicted in the ad.
"Unlike the examples raised, the consequences of a viewer being dissuaded from reporting an instance where they felt a child might be being abused, if those suspicions turned out to be true, were extremely serious and even life-threatening.
"We considered that the ad was likely to be understood as discouraging viewers from reporting problems to the police unless they were certain of what was taking place.
"Given the specific example used and the potential outcomes of failing to report suspected child abuse, we concluded that the ad was socially irresponsible.
"The ad must not appear again in the form complained about.
"We told Surrey Police to ensure that their advertising did not imply that viewers should avoid calling the police in situations where an individual could be at risk of harm."