St John Ambulance: do the numbers add up?

20th Sep 2012

St John Ambulance's latest advert was, by their own admission, designed to be 'aggressive'. Broadcast at primetime, it was watched by an audience of some nine million people.

It told the story of a man who, having been diagnosed with cancer, recovers his health only to choke to death at a barbeque. Its message was stark and simple: 'First aid could help to prevent up to 140,000 deaths each year. The same number that die from cancer.' The next morning, the St John Ambulance advert was discussed on BBC Breakfast and ITV's Daybreak. 

The charity's campaign message is clear - it wants more people to learn basic first aid. But 140,000 deaths is a surprising statistic. And so the day after the advert aired, we asked St John Ambulance to show us their data

They've since told us that their 'medical expert' used data from the Office of National Statistics to calculate that up to 139,607 people could be saved by first aid each year. The ONS keeps a record not only of the number of deaths in the UK, but also how many people died from different causes. 

St John Ambulance explained that for each 'cause of death' category in the ONS mortality data for 2010 they decided whether or not there were effective first aid interventions that might have saved the lives of those who died.

They then added up the total number of deaths in each of their selected categories to arrive at a figure of 139,607 deaths. This statistic then allowed them to claim that 'up to 140,000 lives' could be saved by first aid.

However, what's perhaps more surprising is that the charity have refused to disclose which categories they included in their final calculation of 139,607 deaths. So we have no idea whether meningitis, for example, counts as a first aid scenario or not. 

For some reason, St John Ambulance do not want their data set to be available to the public. However, they did issue the following statement:

'Our data was submitted and independently reviewed by Clearcast which we're satisfied with. We've made our analytical method clear, and the ONS mortality data and First Aid Manual are openly accessible to anyone wanting to analyse the data.'

Clearcast is an agency that helps advertisers to ensure that their adverts comply with broadcasting standards. However, using Clearcast's services does not guarantee that an advert will not later be judged as 'misleading' by the Advertising Standards Authority.

We would dispute that St John Ambulance have ensured that their data is 'openly accessible': the ONS data is certainly published, but it doesn't by itself explain the 139,607 figure. At this stage it's impossible for anybody to check whether they might reach the same conclusion as the charity, based on the information that they have published.

First aid is certainly a valuable skill and undoubtedly in some circumstances it can be the difference between life and death. But we can't be sure of how many lives it could save if the charity responsible for the 140,000 figure won't substantiate it when asked to do so. 

Update (04/07/2013): We've taken this case to the Advertising Standards Authority. To read our thoughts on its verdict, please click here.

Flickr image courtesy of mac_ivan