05/02/2012 01:06 EDT | Updated 07/02/2012 05:12 EDT

Focus groups found proposed elder abuse commercial too creepy for TV

OTTAWA - A proposed tough-on-crime TV spot about elder abuse proved a little too creepy for seniors, new documents show.

Focus groups found the 30-second commercial, which featured an elderly woman inspecting a police lineup of suspected fraudsters, to be "off-putting/frightening."

Market-research firm Ipsos Reid urged the Department of Human Resources and Skills Development to use another, less unsettling ad.

"In borrowing of the symbols of law and order, the ad led participants down the wrong path," the company wrote in its February report.

"The criminalization might actually deter seniors from reporting abuse out of fear of losing their loved ones or needed caregivers. Police presence might be a deterrent for seniors from different cultural backgrounds."

Ipsos Reid ran 11 focus groups in Vancouver, Montreal, Halifax and London, Ont., last November. Seniors, caregivers and front-line professionals took part.

Not all participants found the ads so frightening.

"This is very direct," one participant told Ipsos Reid. "We know that a crime has been committed and we are going to identify who and how."

The Canadian Press obtained the focus-group report under the Access to Information Act.

The Tories have introduced legislation that would amend the Criminal Code to impose tougher sentences on those convicted of elder abuse. The stiffer sentencing provisions were among the Conservatives' promises during the last election campaign and were also mentioned in last year's speech from the throne.

Seniors groups often complain that sentencing in elder-abuse cases is too lax. They claim abuse affects about one in 10 seniors and often goes unreported. Even when reported, convictions are rare.

The police line-up concept was one of three TV spots put to focus groups.

A second ad showed seniors being defrauded in their homes by credit-card scams and smooth talkers. Focus groups found this the least effective of the three ads.

The third spot showed a woman in her 40s portraying different kinds of people who scam seniors. The camera pulls back to reveal she is speaking to an elderly woman in her kitchen, which is surrounded by yellow police tape that reads "This is a crime scene."

Then the senior rises from her chair and breaks through the police tape.

A 1-800 number at the end of each spot confused the focus groups, who thought they were supposed to call it to report a crime when it was actually meant to provide more information about elder abuse.

The groups pointed out a potential problem with posting information for seniors on a government website.

"While a website is an important medium well-suited to provide information and links to additional resources, the potential victims may not be the most tech savvy," the report says.

The government ultimately went with a TV spot that takes place in the kitchen of an older home. An elderly woman sits at the kitchen table across from a woman in her 40s. The light dims and unsettling piano music plays as the younger woman threatens the senior.

"Sign the cheque or find someone else to look after you!" yells the younger woman.

The lighting returns to normal and the elderly woman rises from her chair and walks away.

The new ad follows on the government's elder-abuse campaign that ran on TV and the Internet last year, which featured scenes of seniors being abused on a sidewalk as seen from the vantage point of someone looking through Venetian blinds out a second-storey window.

This new campaign focuses on money scams rather than physical or emotional abuse.

The department says more spots are on the way.

"We are currently developing plans for future elder abuse advertising campaigns for the remainder of this year and next," a spokesperson said in an email.

Included with results of the focus groups were emails with feedback from the public about the ads that ran last year, which was not exactly glowing.

"The caller would like to express her displeasure with the TV advertisements concerning 'Elder Abuse — It's Time to Face the Reality,'" one bureaucrat wrote to another.

"She said these were the worst ads ever."