Every time I see a pharmaceutical or health care ad or other marketing material that features a bald cancer patient, I get mad. As a marketer in the cancer technology and clinical research space, I’ve grown tired of the imagery used to promote cancer therapies not keeping pace with the remarkable innovations in this area.
Everyone recognizes the bald cancer patient motif. It’s usually a woman wearing a scarf to cover her shiny head. It is supposed to signify struggle and courage in the face of misfortune. It evokes sympathy: She admirably humanizes a terrible disease.
But if you’re someone who was recently diagnosed with cancer, or their loved one, the bald cancer patient can elicit a quite different response: fear.
Few people conduct more online searches than recently diagnosed cancer patients and their loved ones. They want answers, and they want them fast. They want to educate themselves about the disease, know the odds of their survival, learn what treatments are available, find the best doctors treating cancer, and connect with others who have walked the same path.
Their searches routinely yield images of bald cancer patients. Some are smiling, as if life were rosy. Others strike a resolute pose, as if they’ve bravely accepted their situation and are resolved to accept the standard of care.
Some cancer centers advertise their therapies through emotional appeals that “evoke hope and fear while rarely providing information about risks, benefits, or costs.” Using stereotypes and inspiring false hopes raises ethical questions that the health sector has been struggling to resolve for years.
Cancer-focused companies, including technology companies working on cancer, follow suit. Even when their products and software are designed to accelerate applications of what is known as “precision medicine,” they often still use outdated imagery and terms like “cure” or describe themselves as “weapons.”
Precision medicine is certainly exciting. It’s an approach to selecting treatments for patients based on an understanding of each patient’s unique genetics and that of the disease they are facing. It’s also sometimes called personalized medicine. Recent advances in science and technology, especially the speed and economic efficiency with which genetic information can now be processed, have helped accelerate the pace of this work.
But companies selling products to patients as well as to physicians are not the ones facing cancer or providing care. Why do marketers at these companies feel entitled to borrow from this emotion-laden marketing approach? I think it’s because it’s easy.
Businesses focused on cancer don’t need to overcorrect and produce ads that focus solely on the painful aspects of living with cancer. Marketers like myself can, however, produce more honest and straightforward marketing campaigns.
Precision medicine is a perfect fit for doing that.
Precision medicine is revolutionizing the treatment of cancer and, along with it, the clinical trials that lead to cancer treatments and therapies — the area I work in. Artificial intelligence and the application of other technologies in clinical trials make it possible for drug developers to tailor treatments for specific patients and individualize care in remarkable ways depending on genetic variabilities, the environment, and patient lifestyles.
Those charged with marketing these therapies should find inspiration in these innovations. Yet they continue to use images that recall the blunt instruments of chemotherapy and radiation. Precision medicine must give rise to precision marketing that appeals less to emotion and gimmicks and more to individual patients and their experiences.
My colleagues and I in cancer-related marketing should also drop the currently popular scripts that feature seemingly healthy people who credit a drug for their now-normal lives and instead try to educate audiences about the unique challenges that individual cancer patients face. Rather than bathing marketing materials in light and airy tones, they should simply state the facts and let the people whose shoes marketers are not walking in decide for themselves how to proceed.
Marketers these days can compile extraordinary details about the folks they are attempting to reach. So why not avoid the sugarcoating, target those who are best-suited for a drug, educate them about their unique challenges, and help them make sound decisions rather than exploit their desperation. Individuals suffering from serious cancer don’t need to see sappy images of smiling cancer patients. They want to know that someone, somewhere is working hard to save their lives — and that someone will give them straight talk.
At a time when marketers have the tools to intimately know their audience, showcasing bald or happy cancer patients strikes me as lazy marketing. We can be more precise. Most importantly, we can be more respectful.
Dorit Baxter is senior vice president of marketing and communications at Inteliquet.