APG Creative Strategy Awards - Skcin 'McCann Erickson London

LONDON - How McCann Erickson London used a spoof tanning website to spread a warning about skin cancer.

Skcin 'computertan.com' by McCann Erickson London
Skcin 'computertan.com' by McCann Erickson London

This is a story about engaging an audience that didnít want to be engaged; talking to them about a subject which they didnít want to discuss and, perversely, persuading them to spread that message themselves.  Itís a story about a small charity with big ambitions and a strategy which enabled it to punch way above its weight.

Our Skcin campaign targeted those most at risk of developing skin cancer - the sunbed-obsessed tanorexics - by using their obsession against them. We created a fake, online tanning product designed to appeal to tanorexicsí thirst for new tanning technology.  The campaign then became self-selecting: those most at risk were most likely to suspend disbelief and visit the site.

Visit the site they did - in their droves.  So far, visits to computertan.com stand at 422,686 and counting...


Karen Clifford wasnít a sun-worshipper, but she felt better with a suntan. Along with her husband, Richard and their daughter, Kathryn, Karen habitually visited Spain on a package holiday for two weeks every year.

By the time Karenís skin cancer was diagnosed, it had already spread to her liver. She died aged 61 on New Yearís Eve, 2005.

Kathryn and Richard Clifford founded the Karen Clifford Skin Cancer Charity, Skcin, in 2006, with the ambition of being the largest skin-cancer specific organisation in the UK. They did so as a result of their loss, but also because rates of skin cancer are growing faster than any other form of the disease in the UK.

They approached us with a challenge: bring skin cancer to the forefront of UK awareness and allow Skcin to unify and magnify the work of the numerous small charities which work to fund research into the disease.

Background - Skin Cancer in the UK

In the last 30 years rates of skin cancer have more than quadrupled, from 3.4 cases per 100,000 people in 1977 to 14.7 per 100,000 in 2006. The British Association of Dermatologists reports up to 18 per cent increases of melanoma over two years in some areas of the UK, and more than 8,100 cases of malignant melanoma ñ the deadliest form of skin cancer ñ will be diagnosed this year.

More than 1,700 of those sufferers will die from the disease; almost five people a day.  While Government spending on skin cancer awareness messaging remains low, there have been numerous national initiatives have sought to raise awareness of the dangers of over-exposure to the sun: Cancer Researchís excellent SunSmart campaign, Mother's work for Bootsí Soltan range and the current screening campaign among English cricketers have all increased awareness of the need for adequate protection when in strong sunlight.

Studying the skin cancer problem in the UK, we noticed another worrying trend: the dangerous increase in popularity of sunbed tanning. Here was a platform upon which Skcin could successfully campaign; a platform which focused on the 50 weeks a year when skin cancer isnít front of mind in the public.

The Sunbed Problem and the Rise of the Tanorexic

The number of sunbeds in the UK has risen by a third in the last decade and studies estimate that as many as eight out of ten sunbeds produce levels of UVB which exceed EU recommendations. Research by Cancer Research suggests that using a sunbed just once a month can increase the risk of skin cancer by more than half, and many sunbed users - predominantly young women - are using sunbeds far more than 12 times a year; some are using sunbeds twice a week or more.  Sunbeds are most popular among hardcore tanners: those most at risk of developing skin cancer.

As far back as 2004 the British Medical Association drew attention to the phenomenon of ìtanorexiaî in a 2004 report. Tanorexia is an obsession with achieving the ìperfectî tan and is most prevalent in young women.

While its effects may be medical, the root cause is cultural. Coco Chanel first fetishised the tan back in the 1920s and the fashion and beauty industry has driven home the message that a suntan is sexy and - perversely - healthy, ever since. Sunbeds are commonly found at health spas and in gyms and todayís celebrity-obsessed culture has only exacerbated the problem, with a slew of magazines and TV shows seemingly dedicated to convincing people that they need to emulate their heroes if theyíre to be successful in life. The stars theyíre emulating are rarely seen without a "healthy" tan.

In turn, the growth and acceptance of sunbeds as part and parcel of modern grooming has led to a blasÈ attitude towards their effects. As a team at the Ninewells Hospital & Medical School in Dundee discovered, as many as 15% of users do not believe that sunbeds carry a health risk, while of those that do acknowledge that a risk is involved, only half mention skin cancer.
Source: Metro, May 11 2009

The Strategy

Our communications strategy was a simple one ñ create a campaign that talks to those most at risk about the dangers of using sunbeds.

As is increasingly usual with charity advertising, budget was an issue.  Skcin is not a large charity with access to the kinds of funds needed for a traditional above the line awareness campaign ñ we needed a campaign platform that allowed Skcin to punch way above its weight, while simultaneously confering credibilty on the message.

Our first hurdle was our at-risk target audience - not only are more than half hardcore sunbedders blind to the dangers of their obsession, very few of those addicted want to hear that their habit could put them in danger.  Add to this the fact that the effects of sunbed usage might only manifest themselves 20 years down the line, and the campaignís central message - that there's no such thing as a safe sunbed - is not one that has much traction with its target audience.

This called for a disruptive approach, both strategically and creatively: we needed to target those most at risk in the full knowledge that this audience was going to be hardest to reach.

The Tanorexic Mindset

In order to speak to those with a sunbed addiction, we needed to understand their tanning mindset.  We visited and interviewed tens of tanning salons ñ from gyms to the coin-operated electric beaches where some of the most extreme sunbed-addicted behaviour manifests itself.

Interviewing managers and their customers, we made a number of discoveries that chimed with the available research: a widespread belief that a tan is healthy (one salon we visited combined its tan cabin with a vibrating-plate exercise machine, so users could lose weight while they tanned); a common trend of users visiting tanning salons to get a ìpre-tanî head start before they go on holiday; and a hardcore which is seemingly desperate for the perfect tan. We discovered few, if any users, ask about health risks.

And those that do are told, categorically, that no risks exist.

And we discovered something which goes beyond desperation for a tan. We witnessed tanorexia first hand: habitual behaviour that displayed an obsession with the latest tanning technology. Tanorexics knew all about the latest innovations in tanning technology: which salons had the most powerful, fastest tubes; which products were best to use at home; even which "accelerator" drugs and lotions to use in order to maximise the effects of UV exposure.  One described the pills they took as helping them to "tan on the train home" after a tanning session.

Thinking Outside the Cabin

For the tanorexics, sunbathing didnít just mean a couple of weeks on the beach in the summer, or a couple of sessions a month on the sunbed, their lives revolved around accessing the latest technology in order to get the perfect tan.

Working from this insight we realised that if we could fool these people into thinking there was an innovative piece of tanning technology that they were missing out on, we could use that technology to carry the Skcin warning message.

Using this strategy we started to think about other ways in which tanorexics could feed their obsession.

We explored in-home, but discovered a wealth of products - from lamps to self-tan sprays - that already catered for that market. So where else could we engage them?

This led to a simple brief: create a piece of brand utility to carry a sunbed warning message: there's no such thing as a safe sunbed.  Our creative team came back with computertan.com.


Computertan.com was brilliant both in its simplicity and its effectiveness - a self-selecting piece of communication, created to appeal to those most gullible, most willing to suspend disbelief and hence, most at risk from sunbed abuse.

To give our target audience exactly what they wanted - a new and effective way of getting a tan, we developed a revolutionary software application, available for download from computertan.com. The application turns an everyday computer monitor into a "tanning screen" and enables people to tan themselves from the comfort of their desks.

"Tanning Screen"

To drive traffic to the site we developed an infomercial offering free online tanning sessions at computertan.com.


This was seeded on thousands of websites as well as being PR-ed across key bloggers for relevant interest groups together with an extensive national press PR campaign.  We printed 25,000 free tanning vouchers, which spray-tanned volunteers distributed across the UK, and the infomercial was displayed on 50 digital cross track panels in 10 London underground stations and in 1,000 London taxi screens.

In a second wave of activity, we launched an iPhone application, which we sent out to our email database and supported with online advertising.

iPhone Application

Only when they begin their trial and are 20 seconds in to their first session does it become apparent that the technology is a hoax.  Five images depicting the ravaging effects of skin cancer are projected on to the screen with the message that this is the number of people that die each day from the disease.  Itís at this point that the user is introduced to the real organisation behind the campaign, Skcin.


Visitors can then visit Skcinís website, or hoax a friend in to logging on to the site.  It was here that we got our target audience to spread the word for us to a larger, interested audience.  Granted, not all of the visitors were duped into believing the technology was real, but the amount of traffic to the site clearly demonstrated the message was one of real interest to a wider audience than just our tanorexics.


Within 24 hours of launch, computertan.com had received over 30,000 hits. Within four weeks, the number of hits had reached over 230,000 from an incredible 180 countries.

The campaign clearly engaged a wide audience. To date, computertan has had 422,686 visits and over 1.6 million page views, with an average dwell time of over two minutes. 1.7million people were exposed to the CBS digital cross track panels, 700,000 through London Cabvision and our sister media agency Universal McCann achieved over 17 million page impressions with its online bookings.

Skcinís profile has grown immeasurably. Limelightís PR campaign delivered extensive national press coverage across titles including The Sun, The Independent, The Daily Express, The Guardian and also online with BBC News, BBC Radio One, The New Zealand Herald, Fox US and Yahoo News. Such was the interest from readers of The Sun that the paper has become an unofficial media partner to Skcin.
And Skcin realised its ambition to be at the forefront of and unify the work that other charities carry out in the field: in March, Skcin hosted and chaired a delegation of skin cancer charities, a position it never would have been in six months ago.

Computertan.com has been delivered pro bono by the agencies involved. Its greatest achievement has been its ability to introduce the dangers of skin cancer to an audience which didnít want to listen through an innovative and brave creative approach. As a campaign, it has given Skcin, and that the work that it does, a platform to build on for future communication.
Source: Google Analytics

Richard and Kathryn Clifford, trustees of Skcin, say of the campaign: "The value and success of the ëComputertaní campaign has far exceeded our expectations. There is clear evidence that the spoof was so meticulously engraved that the campaign very quickly achieved its objectives and then some. It was a bold idea that was pulled off spectacularly by a truly talented, dedicated and extremely incredible team.
ìSkcinís aims and objectives from the outset have been to significantly increase public awareness of skin cancer through education and resultant early diagnosis, thereby saving lives. There is no doubt that McCann Erickson has made a huge and otherwise unobtainable impact in this regard and for that the management are eternally grateful.

"The profile of the charity has obviously been significantly increased on a national level resulting in a wide range of public, private and media contacts, leaving us very excited about the future of the charity."