My view on that pancreatic cancer ad campaign

The charity Pancreatic Cancer Action have caused a storm with their new ‘cancer envy’ advertising campaign in which patients are pictured saying things like: ‘I wish I had breast cancer.’

So if it’s shock tactics they were after, and public attention to go with it, then they must be delighted.  As must the advertising company most of all. Job done, they will be saying I suspect.

One can understand the temptation for charities to go just that little bit further in making us sit up and notice.  More charities than ever before are competing for yours and my funds. They are, I believe, genuinely motivated by a desire to make sure potentially life-saving messages get through to us.  But do the ends really justify the means?

I can remember two occasions in my charity career when judgement calls needed to be made about advertising.  At the Alzheimer’s Society in the mid-nineties the staff recoiled at a proposed advertising campaign showing a brain scan with the slogan ‘It blows your mind.’ But when tested with people with dementia and their carers they loved it. They felt that the time was right to shock people a bit. So we ran it. All seems a bit tame now twenty years later.  I can’t even find the posters on the internet.

More recently when I was at Ovarian Cancer Action I looked at some proposals for a ‘shock’ advertising campaign and would have probably signed on the dotted line if I had had a choice.  But I was persuaded otherwise by colleagues.  Looking back, they were right and I was wrong.  There was little evidence to suggest there was the appetite among patients and carers for such a message at that time.

The reason for telling these stories is simply to make the point that – as with much else in running a charity – things get dangerous once you get too far ahead, or too far behind, your beneficiaries and how they think and feel.  To be fair to Pancreatic Cancer Action it does sound as if people with pancreatic cancer have been involved in the campaign.  They feature in it at least anyway. The founder Ali Stunt makes this point in her blog about the campaign yesterday. Although the fact that -as far as I know – other pancreatic cancer charities are not clamouring to endorse it might suggest that they are hearing otherwise on the ground.

On This Morning earlier today, the resident TV doctor, Dr Dawn, said the controversy about the campaign was based on a misunderstanding of its message.  The charity is wanting people to go to their doctor with possible early symptoms to get them checked out as possible.  Fair enough.  But if the message is being obscured by the medium’s ‘shock tactics’ then I would say the campaign is failing in its objectives.  I could understand it a bit more in a strange way if it was a cool fundraising pitch but not as a health improvement campaign.

I do agree with others that the charity has crossed the line into quite dangerous territory in which we are being asked to consider whether one disease is nastier than another. Is that really what charities want now? As Breakthrough Breast Cancer have said today: ‘It’s not a competition.’

It’s a matter of judgement at the end of the day.  And I am no Mary Whitehouse.  But in my opinion the charity has made the wrong call.

I just hope it’s not counterproductive in the long run.

Comments

  1. I agree. The film is a complex example of misaligned communication. It also waves a warning flag on one less than helpful aspect of patient involvement – the certainty of patients that their personal experience tops everything, every time. It doesn’t. Not every time. If it scares people off a fundraising ask, or picks an argument (unintentional, but it’s what happened) that says ‘my cancer is worse than yours’, as it appears to here, it hasn’t done the right thing at all.

    I agree it seems likely that that this advert works for the makers, people with pancreatic cancer. I can easily see these people’s experience entitles them to rage, rather than reason. I might rage too, in their situation. Many people with pancreatic cancer in the audience may also back the blunt message being disseminated too. But that’s the problem. The advert is not a narrow message for the closely affected. It’s for the unaffected masses, who might donate. And the unaffected masses are far more likely to know some other aspect of the cancer story, which is crucially, far more likely to involve women with breast cancer. It is naive to expect those people connected to a different cancer to react ‘reasonably’ to a film made in ‘rage’ by another patient cancer group.

    In addition, the charity have not spotted that their entirely accurate but very narrow reflection on the problem of (lack of) survival might get muddled with anyone else’s reflections on the problem of mortality, but it is. The internal monologue of an alive woman with pancreatic cancer ‘I wish I had breast cancer’ looks weird, spoken aloud. This clearly upsets a big audience, as 12,000 women died from from breast cancer last year and they don’t look conspicuously ‘better off’ than the 8,000 people diagnosed and dying of pancreatic cancer in any year.
    This advert simply isn’t a persuasive argument for the vast numbers of ‘neutrals’ Pancreatic Cancer Action need to attract to their cause, to make a meaningful difference in favour of more research.

    Why not some joint action by all the cancer advocacy groups concerned with ‘short survival cancers’, (brain, lung, pancreas) to challenge state funded research to work towards co-designed models of funding that promote equity for people affected rather than purely where the science is at, or whose got more sufferers? Not easy. But challenging and needed if inter-cancer knocking copy is not to increase. It would flag up the problems of short survival and should winkle out rather more money. And, weirdly, once money goes into a pot, it’s easier to attract more, which is where the specific cancer advocacy charities can step up.

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