St. John Ambulance Ad Demonstrates Life’s Less Pleasant Surprises

London’s BBH and director Benito Montorio of Blink Productions depict a man’s battle with cancer as part of the Helpless campaign.

Viewers who tuned into this past Sunday’s episode of Downton Abbey in the U.K. saw the premiere of a rather startling advertisement for St. John Ambulance, a London-based organization that teaches people how to perform first aid. (Watch the spot before reading further–there’s a twist).


Created by agency BBH London and directed by Benito Montorio of Blink Productions, the spot, which is the centerpiece of a new Helpless-themed campaign, begins on a grim note, with a man visiting a doctor who informs him that he has cancer. We observe as the man shares the devastating diagnosis with his wife, and then the battle against the disease commences.

It feels like we are watching a documentary as the scenes continue to unfold. In anticipation of his hair falling out, the man’s wife shaves his head, and he undergoes chemotherapy. The treatment is hard on the patient, and he gets sicker and weaker as the days pass. Still, he soldiers on, supported by his wife and his young daughter, and he ultimately beats the cancer and regains his health…only to die after choking on a piece of meat at a barbecue.

We didn’t see that coming.

While he is surrounded by family and friends, apparently no one at the barbecue knows how to perform the Heimlich maneuver. Paramedics are called, but they won’t arrive for another five minutes. By then, it is too late. People stand around helplessly as a person who survived cancer dies a preventable death.

It’s distressing to witness the tragic situation, but the spot is meant, of course, to unnerve people who assume that someone else will surely know what to do in the event of an emergency.

The spot also shares an alarming statistic for viewers to mull over: It turns out first aid could help prevent up to 140,000 deaths every year in the U.K., and as it just so happens, 140,000 people also die from cancer in the U.K. every year.


At the conclusion of the spot, U.K. residents are encouraged to text ‘HELP’ to 84025 to obtain a free pocket-sized guide to first aid.

People can also keep up with the campaign through #Helpless on Twitter and visit the Helpless campaign page on the St John Ambulance site to download the St John Ambulance First Aid app for the iPhone as well as Android devices, play an online game called Rescue Run that depicts five ways to save a life and sign up for local first aid demonstrations and courses.


About the author

Christine Champagne is a New York City-based journalist best known for covering creativity in television and film, interviewing the talent in front of the camera and behind-the-scenes. She has written for outlets including Emmy, Variety,, Redbook, Time Out New York and