The Surgery: The age-old ad tactic
by Mimi Nicklin (@MimiNicklin) It’s an age-old ad tactic: shock people and change their behavior. Show consumers something obscure, frightening, or desperately sad and hope that it shocks them into making a change. Car-safety campaigns do this notoriously well. But does it work for healthcare?
Many of my previous healthcare clients were far too scared (or had had “risk aversion” trained into them for too long) to ever show “the negative” — let alone death. Convinced by today’s smiley, shiny approach to driving “positive product attributes”, many clients feared that showing the negative impact of “not” using their products, or the risks associated with certain behaviors, may turn consumers against them in some way. The ‘side effects’ of being this brave were just too precarious.
The truth is, however, in the blur of health comms and safety stats that we see every day, a bit of shock might be the difference between those all-important ‘share’ and ‘skip’ buttons. If shocking people into reassessing their behaviour is proven to create social currency, why are we so scared of a little bit of risk? (Perhaps, and very controversially, it’s because there is more money in selling products that solve the consequences than there is in helping consumers stay healthy in the first place, but that is a debate I shall stay very clear of.)
Preventative health is the word on most healthcare professionals’ lips but how to truly drive this effectively is still hanging wide open. From a consumer point of view, often it’s a matter of “out of sight, out of mind”: people argue they are just too busy, or that the benefits of their current behavior outweigh the potential risks. Smoking, drinking, even sun bathing all fall into this trap whereby people are so hooked on their habitual actions they ignore the potential ‘reactions’ later on.
Did you know that just one tanning session on a tanning bed increases your risk of melanoma by 20%? If you read this in yet another public service press release, or in an opening editorial in Women’s Health, would it pass you by as one of 1000 stats you’ll read today without taking much notice? Probably. This is the reason thousands of people daily still step into these terrifying sun boxes, unprotected, in the name of vanity and summer-ready legs, without a second thought. Or, perhaps, they do indeed have the second thought but they step in nevertheless — the ‘health stat overkill’ taking away any real consideration. Simply telling people about health stats, or risks, or another “surveys show….” message just isn’t enough — in healthcare you need more than a shocking stat to change behavior; you need some shocking action.
Mollie’s Fund in the US led a campaign last year called “Free Killer Tan” and it’s safe to say it chose a shockingly direct activation. I guess it felt it had nothing to lose and, as a charity, I suspect, it ‘gets away’ with work like this due to the lack of 23 legal people sitting next door warning them of the “risks” of running it.
In this case, Mollie’s Fund prompted people to get up close with the reality of the impact of their tanning session. How? By tricking consumers into attending their own funeral. You can’t get much more of a shock, I would imagine. I once heard that dreaming your own death has been known to put pressure on your heart and brain as you sleep and, in doing so, physiologically puts you at risk. Whether that’s true or not, seeing your own funeral is just not natural. In this case it took a shockingly powerful act to get those habitual users to really reconsider, for the first time, something they most probably already knew — that “this tanning behavior may be killing you”. These consumers had been told this before; it was probably pasted to the room they entered, the changing room wall and the bed itself, but they just didn’t care enough to change.
People didn’t ignore the stat this time, however, and not only did it create content that spread across nearly every major news feed, getting millions of shares and views, it got a Gold Effie, too.
So it’s up to you, dear marketing folk: shock people, or don’t, but for goodness sake do something — and get the legal team to step out the way. If Mollie’s Fund had given out flyers with the “Top 10 risks of indoor sun beds”, I doubt it would have made much of a dent.
Mimi Nicklin (@MimiNicklin) has spent a decade in the advertising industry working across global brands in Europe, Asia Pacific and Africa, mainly within WPP. She most recently led GlaxoSmithKline business as global VP for Grey Group, based in Singapore. She relocated back to South Africa recently as a marketing consultant and to found her own business, www.merakicode.net, in integrated health and yoga therapy, inspired by her time in the east. Her regular MarkLives column, “The Surgery”, tracks consumer healthcare communications to drive awareness and passion for this growing creative and dynamic consumer industry within Africa and beyond.