The New York Times article “Cancer Center Ads Use Emotion More Than Fact” by Natasha Singer sparks an interesting debate among physicians, marketers, and advertising creative directors on how far cancer advertising should go in making claims and pushing emotions.
Could cancer treatment marketing offer false hope to ill patients? Could families feel they are to blame if a loved one’s treatment doesn’t succeed? Marketers and advertisers attempt to provoke an emotional reaction in their advertising, but they cannot control how a patient or patient’s family actually reacts. What they can and should do is be responsible for what they say in the advertising. A hospital brand is not merely about the biggest boast; it is about integrity and transparency.
Merely because “cancer treatment ads tend to play more heavily on emotion than on medical statistics because…they are meant to make an impression on future patients,” as New York Times writer Natasha Singer repeats from marketing executives interviewed, does not make it right for hospital marketers or advertising agencies to communicate exaggerated claims.
Marketers should use the depth of their analytical skills to identify statistically valid “nuggets of gold” that clearly drive a wedge of differentiation between their hospital and their competitors. And advertising agency creative departments should attempt to conceive ads which are emotionally powerful. However, from the writing of the creative brief to the execution of the campaign, the work must consistently be checked for accuracy. If a marketer is worth her weight she can find those nuggets which are data-driven facts without exaggeration. If a creative team is good, they should be able to craft powerful messaging within the restrictions of unquestionable proof points. Using words such as highest, lowest, first, best, and only are important differentiators; however, they can be dangerous if used without sources to back up claims.
I understand Jane Zimmerman, Mount Sinai’s chief marketing officer, stating that the Mount Sinai prostate surgery ad claims were based on “the successful results of Dr. Samadi’s operations and testimonials from his patients”, but using the words “highest cancer cure rates” and “lowest side effects” in the ad should requires the statements to be backed up with valid statistics comparing Dr. Samadi’s record to other hospitals within a given parameter which should be identified in the ad (i.e.: New York City, national-wide, world-wide).
When a marketer is writing the creative brief on which an ad campaign is developed, differentiating claims are important. However, these claims should be backed up with a minimum of two third-party credible sources. Moreover, you should always have creative briefs approved by the clinical chief in the service line on which the ad is focusing or your chief medical officer. This way, there isn’t a “disconnect between the business end of the cancer treatment industrial complex [marketing] and the physicians on the front lines treating patients,” as stated by Dr. John D. Birkmeyer, a cancer outcomes researcher who is a professor of surgery at the University of Michigan Health System. This is true for all hospital advertising and is not specific to cancer alone.
For example, when I worked on the rebranding campaign for Capital Health (Trenton, NJ) and the launch of The Stroke and Cerebrovascular Center of New Jersey, we used claims such as “[Capital Health has] two of the most experienced dual-trained neurosurgeons” and “Nursing care [ranked] in the top 2% nationwide”. We knew if the information was powerful; it was likely Capital Health’s competitors would question the “most experienced” and “top 2%” claims. They needed to be ready to respond with multiple credible sources and statistically valid information, and they were.
Lastly, although I agree with Dr. Bruce A. Chabner, clinical director of the cancer center at Mass General, when he said “any hospital could find a cancer patient who had a positive experience,” I do not agree to his point that treatment ads should avoid testimonials. I believe they are powerful communications tools which do not require the same scrutiny as statistical claims—marketers merely need to verify the testimonial claims. However, I would support his proposal to have “the nation’s major cancer centers establish collective advertising guidelines.” I would expand on this idea to propose that the American Hospital Association appoint a committee, which is representative of the national hospital marketplace, to establish hospital advertising guidelines across the board.
For more information about the fact-based substance in cancer advertsing, please contact Gabrielle DeTora at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Originally seen on the HealthLeaders Media MarketShare Blog.