Who needs truth in advertising, especially when it’s boring?

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Clay Adams | February 12th, 2014

You’ve seen the ad on television. Darling husband on a ladder in the backyard starts to cut down some tree branches and manages to plunge the neighbourhood into darkness.

His wife, obviously worldly and full of self-awareness, rises to the occasion to ask “What happened?” as sparks fly, bodies fall and the zombie apocalypse looms. Hmmm, let me think. Ladder…cuts branch power line…sparks…no lights. Oh, that’s right. Our thermonuclear reactor out back was on the blink and he must have turned it off! Sheesh.

Now I actually love commercials. By that I mean “good” commercials. You know them. The ones that are like the perfect partner. Fun, unpredictable and good to look at. You can see a few here.

Alas, far too many commercials and advertisements are like former-flames – boring, self-centred and just outright annoying. Sorry, but I find the electrical mishap and many of the other Preventable commercials just that. The guy driving despite a myriad of distractions yet the best message they leave you with is that you might hit a bouncing ball?

Or the dutiful hubby climbing a stairway to Heaven to clean the chandelier, only to almost lose it all. Common sense suggests if the ladder isn’t big enough, don’t use it. Besides, the light fixture already looks pretty bloody clean to me.

It needs to resonate

Now, in fairness, most injuries occur simply because people lack common sense but I wonder if these ads are too simplistic. For a message to be effective, it has to resonate with its audience. Do people look at these ads and say “Hey, that’s me?” I wonder.

Same goes for those talking head spots. If anyone tries to convince you that going on TV as a talking head is effective, ignore them. It doesn’t matter if you are telling people to be safe, wash their hands or get a flu shot. All people see is a (usually) wooden character saying something in a visually dull monotone standing between them and the continuation of what they would rather be watching.

Now it’s easy for me to sit and say what I don’t like about this or that, so I acknowledge that the Preventable folks may have done their research, examined various creative options and developed something that is working. I hope it is. Lord knows, we could use less injury-related visits to our Emergency Departments.

They miss the mark

I’m just saying that for me, the ads miss the mark. Perhaps I’m not the target audience? I recall the exploding Pizza Pop commercials that I found repulsive yet my daughter – the target demographic – loved them (the ads, not the product).

I am, as she often reminds me, an old fart who simply doesn’t understand such things.

If you want a clever example that hits its target audience, look at the “Dumb Ways To Die” campaign from Metro Trains in Victoria, Australia. It was developed to remind kids of the dangers of crossing train tracks but grew into a much larger safety campaign encompassing a website, apps, games and even its own jingle. The video has attracted over 71 million views and even my eye-rolling daughter said she and her friends downloaded the app to kill time on their phones. After all, other than texting what else does a teen do with a phone? Talk to people? Yeh, right.

The US-based Prevent Cancer Foundation recently unveiled Check Your Mate, a gutsy poster campaign encouraging people to check for signs of skin, breast and testicular cancer. Rather than send doom and gloom messages about the realities of cancer, it developed some catchy phrases (ie. “Be my bestie, check my testes”) to encourage couples to turn a life-saving process into something fun.

New Zealand took traffic safety advertising to a new level with its amazing freeze-frame anti-speeding commercial. We Aussies are supposed to mock our Kiwi neighbours, but tell me you can watch this and not be moved by it.

Or the Australian commercial demonstrating the safety benefit of reducing speed by a meagre five kilometres. It use of imagery, facts and drama make it compelling to watch and – more importantly – demonstrates how a changed behaviour can actually save lives.

We need less stupidity

There is real value in getting people to do less stupid things. We see over 320,000 visits to emergency departments in VCH alone, with that number projected to rise to 550,000 within the next two decades. We need to do as much as we can to keep people safer and out of our hospitals and we need to do it now.

Some suggest an ad campaign is the way to do that but successful campaigns cost money. Big money. That’s a luxury we don’t have in health care. And it also takes time. Consider that Australia’s road safety campaigns began in the early-70s with the introduction of 0.5 alcohol limits and continue today – a generation or two later.

But such campaigns do not work in isolation. Much as road safety messages are supported by added enforcement and stiffer penalties, ad campaigns to reduce ED use must be supported by workable options such as robust primary care and physician access.

Tell people what you want them to do, not what they can’t do. Not only is that respectful, it just makes sense…and saves a lot of wasted advertising which means you can get back to your TV show even faster.

What impacts you?

Have you seen examples of advertisements or commercials that have impacted you? Does health care advertising really work? Please share your thoughts and examples below. 

About the Author

Clay Adams
email iconClay.Adams@vch.ca  

Clay Adams is vice president of Communications and Public Affairs and has extensive experience in strategic communications and planning, media relations, issues management and stakeholder communications in Australia and Canada. Clay writes on communication related topics with a wry humorous style and has an interest in discussion about how we want to be understood by others. View all the posts by Clay.

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6 comments on “Who needs truth in advertising, especially when it’s boring?

  • John says:

    I think people like dumb ads because they are so stressed out they want to laugh at someone else. Stress and health is a social responsibility the extends beyond healthcare. Should we really be advertising? Shouldn’t the system focus on education? The ministries need to work together. The health sector should communicate with education; let educator know what to teach children at the grass roots level. If people are educated about their health they would not be running to the ER with none ER concerns. Budget … are we spending so much on advertising and administration we don’t have enough to educate?

  • Jillian says:

    Reality is far more effective when you want to get a point across

    How about former patients/cllients become ambassodors at schools, community centres and libraries sharing their experiences, the repercussions and services available to re-educate themselves.
    Schools already have some of these guest speakers and I have found the students really listen. Education does not have to be expensive.

    People of any age are far more likely to listen to real life expereinces and the consequences rather than watch a mock up of life’s tragedies.

  • Lindsay says:

    I think the reason for the differences in the ads is that health is more challenging to sell than beer, cookies and soda pop – hence why the companies that sell these products that contribute to chronic disease in the “good” ads are billion dollar multinationals – Mondelēz International, Anheuser-Busch InBev & PepsiCo. I also imagine that Preventable didn’t have quite the same budget to pay Wasserman + Partners Advertising (a Vancouver based ad agency) for their ads than was paid to agencies creating the Oreo, Mountain Dew, and Bud Light ads.

    • Clay Adams says:

      Thanks Lindsay. You are obviously correct in saying budget is huge factor in the nature and quality of advertising and I have no doubt that Preventable did not hand Wasserman a huge bucket of cash to work with . However, my point was not really about comparing its ads to the private sector commercials (which I added more for entertainment value) rather than the other safety ads/campaigns I highlighted.

      While advertising costs money, success is not contingent on money. Successful advertising is about knowing your audience and understanding what it takes to make an impact with them. Anyone concerned with safe driving habits should be able to relate to the traffic safety commercials. Children won’t. They simply don’t connect with them. My concern with some of the Preventable ads – and I am truly not wanting to dump on or attack them in particular (they simply came to my mind when writing this blog) – is the behaviours shown strike me as being ridiculous and dangerous even to most home handymen.

      I get that people do silly things to themselves and wind up in hospital. You can see that simply by watching the Knowledge Network series about the VGH ED. I just wonder if the examples used were based on real concerns or creative concepts, that’s all.

  • Wendy says:

    You’ll have to moderate this one: Your use of the abbreviation ED following a sentence with the word ‘stiffer’ in it, led me to read ‘erectile dysfunction’ and not ’emergency department’ 🙂

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