Let’s face it. There is a fine line between humorous medical marketing and making fun of sick people. And it’s up to the marketer to know exactly where that line is. Make people laugh about a medical condition and you may have the next Viagra on your hands. Make them cringe, though, and your campaign efforts will go limp, fast. Let’s take a closer look through the medical humor microscope.
Alka Selzer, er, Humor to the Rescue?
Marketers have used humor to sell health products for decades. Alka Seltzer sold millions of effervescent tablets over the years by making fun of common illnesses in a series of ad campaigns. Comedy legend Buster Keaton filmed several ads for the company. None of Keaton’s commercials was a real knee-slapper, though, and this marketing campaign fell largely into oblivion.
Perhaps one of Alka Seltzer’s biggest gut-busters is its 1972 “I can’t believe I ate the whole thing” ad, in which Ralph sits at the edge of the bed and bemoans his gluttonous appetite while his wife encourages him to take an Alka Seltzer. Consumers began using the line to describe their own indigestion.
The company was less successful in its 1969 “Mama Mia, that’s a spicy meatball” commercial. It seems consumers laughed at the ad, but they thought the campaign was for tomato sauce. Marketing fail!
Humor is an Effective Medical Marketing Tool
Humor gets to the point, shatters myths, re-examines excuses, and challenges fears. Humor also uses the element of surprise, which is usually frowned upon in medicine.
The wisecrackers at Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine (PCRM) surprised everyone when they hung a billboard in Chicago and several other cities that said, “Hot dogs cause butt cancer: Processed meats increase colorectal cancer risk.”
The portly cartoon man on the billboard holds a hot dog and, dressed only in a hospital gown, looks at his exposed rear. While hailed as a publicity stunt by many, the ad brought much-needed awareness to the fact that eating a lot of hot dogs or other processed meats increases the risk of colorectal cancer, which is the third leading cause of death in the United States. The billboard also raises questions about why a man would wear a hospital gown while eating a hot dog, but we’ll leave that question for another day.
Back to that fine line between funny and offensive – stay on the right side of the line by thinking in terms of having permission to be funny about a particular health topic. The PCRM’s ad clenched a few sphincters in Chicago, where the consumption of hot dogs is practically a religion, but did well in other cities. Yakima Health District didn’t fare much better in its colorectal cancer campaign when it erected billboards showing people with pained expressions and the phrase, “What’s up your butt?”
Clearly, people are not yet ready to joke about their wazoos. Giggling about other parts of the body might be fine, though. Using comedy can even be an effective marketing tool for other companies in the health care industry.
UnitedHealthcare used humor to show how they could make the medical system less costly and confusing, for example. They made medical coding look like a hoot and a half in their television advertisement, which shows a couple setting the table when their song, “Time of My Life” from the movie “Dirty Dancing,” comes on the radio. The woman takes a flying leap at the man, he misses his lift and they crash into the table. The official medical code for ‘activity involving dancing and other rhythmic movements,’ E005.9 flashes across the screen. The next scene shows a videoconference in which the doctor asks the couple what happened. The woman delivers the punch line, “I came in too hot.”
UnitedHealthcare made other mirthful ads about various codes for pain and suffering. They attracted customers when they showed a woman getting carried away with her basketball moves and colliding with the fan (W08.XXXD), for example, a man crashing into a poolside table during “pool vaulting” (Y93.57), and another fellow falling into a manhole (E883.2). Who knew medical records could be so hilarious!
Humor in Health Care
Research shows that humor plays an important role in health care, even for terminal patients. In one study, Canadian researchers spent nearly 300 hours interviewing and observing staff working at an intensive care unit, terminally ill patients, and family members. They found that humor helps promote team relationships and added a human dimension to the care and support provided by the staff. The study showed that, among other benefits, humor helped reduce embarrassment for patients who must undergo certain indignities of care.
Of course, humorous marketing would be inappropriate for terminal patients but it can appeal to people coping with minor health issues. Humor can also inspire people to undergo diagnostic testing.
The Scottish Government produced a television commercial in which comedian Elaine C Smith showed real photos of breasts. The marketing campaign helped boost the number of women who went to their general practitioners with breast cancer symptoms by 50 percent. That’s right – boob jokes helped save lives by increasing awareness of breast cancer symptoms.
But then again, don’t go by people in Scotland – they chuckled all the way to the doctor’s office, snapping their fingers to “The Poo Song,” a funny ditty that helped raise awareness of bowel cancer.
Humor can succeed where other, more serious approaches fail. This is especially true when marketing diagnostics or products for embarrassing medical problems or lifestyle issues. Marketing firms can deploy humor to disarm stock defenses and disable convenient excuses. One Canadian smoking cessation campaign likens “social smoking” to “social farting” in an effort to show the silliness of smoking only at parties or other gatherings. The star of the ad says, “Just because I fart at parties now and then – it doesn’t make me a farter.”
While it is okay to get people to laugh about their minor conditions, humorous health advertising should avoid evoking feelings of shame. Some medical conditions, such as mental illness and sexually transmitted diseases, carry a certain level of shame. In one study, participants favored humor ads over no-humor ads when the advertisements avoided shaming; the participants preferred no-humor ads to funny marketing when there was shame involved. Marketers need to be sensitive to these potentially embarrassing illnesses and utilize more serious approaches.
Professional marketers and writers know where the fine line is between making sick people laugh and laughing at sick people. Whether you want to encourage patients to undergo testing or use your product, laughter may always the best medicine and marketing tool.
Lynn H has been a professional writer, providing exceptional content online and offline, for nearly 20 years. In that time, she has penned thousands of articles for doctors, universities, researchers, small businesses, nursing organizations, sole proprietors and more. She writes everything from blogs to white papers; her specialty is putting complex scientific concepts in simple terms. She specializes in medical writing, creating informative and engaging content for professionals in medicine, dentistry, nursing, pharmacy, medical manufacturing, chiropractics, optometry, emergency care, plastic surgery and others.