OpinionJan 26 2023

Dr Shipman, social media and shock tactics

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Dr Shipman, social media and shock tactics
Social media has the power to amplify emotions. (Tim Gouw/Pexels)

When I woke up on Monday January 23 I little realised I would be writing a story about Harold Shipman, a cartoon of a pooping bird and life insurance.

Within a few hours, social media had thrown up some interesting adverts from online life insurance company DeadHappy and after several emails to adviser contacts it was clear that an advert using mass murderer Shipman's face to promote life insurance was DeadWrong.

The company's founder told me DeadHappy was "provocative" and while it did not intend to cause any offence to relatives of Shipman's victims, it also stood by its decision to put out controversial advertisements in order to get people to think about life insurance and the importance of protection.

Previous adverts on Facebook and Instagram had included birds pooping and jocular messages about mental ill health, such as "I'm depressed: I'm not dying".

Not all of these have gone down well on social media, (see screenshot, below), with long threads on LinkedIn and Twitter criticising them.

But the image of the so-called Dr Death, who was convicted for the murder of 15 elderly people in his care and may have killed up to 230 more, has really crossed a line.

Since writing my story, which was published in the morning of Tuesday 24, it got picked up closely by the Telegraph and rehashed thereafter. At the time of writing, it is the most-read story on the BBC website (Wednesday 25).

Most advisers who have contacted me have been "beyond" appalled at the advert and, as at the time of writing, the Advertising Standards Agency has received more than 50 complaints. 

It isn't the first time DeadHappy has been brought to the ASA's attention; in 2019 the ASA censured it for an advertising campaign for life insurance showing a young man leaning sadly against a wall.

There is a difference between a comedian selling nothing more than their brand of humour, and a company selling a product. 

In its judgement then, the ASA said it "understood that the ad was part of a larger campaign which used images designed to attract attention and that the image was not chosen to highlight any connection to suicide.

"However, while the ad did not refer to depression or suicide, we were concerned about the image."

Most advisers seem concerned about the latest one – especially when FTAdviser learned that relatives of one of Dr Shipman's victims had seen the advert. The ASA has told us complaints are "concerned that the use of Shipman's image is offensive.

"We’ve taken careful note of the serious concerns being raised about this ad and we’re reviewing complaints to determine whether there are grounds for further action."

Virtue signalling

But there are some advisers who have written to say this is a lot of "moral virtue-signalling" among the protection and advisory communities on social media. 

They have told me that protection needs to be "sold, not bought" and if "one person takes out cover as a result of seeing this, it's a good result". 

Richard Bishop, lecturer at Leeds Beckett University, posted an image of American serial killer Dr Crippen (below), playing on DeadHappy's words.