Wednesday, 15 July 2009

Advertising Cancer

I was watching TV the other night (I have to admit that it was the new show on LivingTV called 'Four Weddings' where four brides get to attend each others' weddings and then slag them off afterwards. It was HILARIOUS, mostly because of the narcissistic gay 'bride' who was the biggest bitch I've ever seen making snobbish value judgements about the other contestants)... I digress... and an advert came on for Cancer Research UK, or CRUK as we call them in the trade.

And I had few thoughts about it. Firstly, due to the seriousness of cancer and the impact it has on peoples' lives, I feel I should mention again that I work for a cancer charity and that my thoughts aren't a reflection of the devastating impact cancer has on people but how we should talk about and view people living with cancer.

The start of this advert is pretty good. I think it reflects the fact that cancer really can affect anyone - and it’s pretty positive too. My issue lies with the last 15 seconds when the whole tone of the advert changes and we're reminding that it’s not a battle everyone wins. Now, I am not suggesting we gloss over the fact that more people are diagnosed and that many, many people still die of cancer or its knock on effects, but there was a clear distinction between 'those who live' and 'those who die'. Those who live look healthy and empowered and hirsute. The two women at the end with bald heads or scarves were clearly meant to represent those people who die as a result of their cancer.

I did find it frustrating that the 'non survivors' were represented by the stereotypical bald cancer victim. No one else in the footage had hair loss, only those telling the audience that many people still die from cancer - with the clear message that this might apply to them. Of course this is harrowing and very likely true for these women - and I was deeply moved for them - but I felt almost patronised at the sharp contrast drawn between the two groups represented within the advert.

There are a number of issues with the way this is represented. Firstly, many people diagnosed with cancer do not suffer hair loss, including many who receive chemo as part of their treatment. Secondly, for me it equates hair loss with terminal illness, which hardly seems fair on those in remission and perpetuates the confusion that it's cancer which causes hair loss and not the treatment. Why are none of the 'survivors' depicted with hair loss? Thirdly, does it really 'do' these days to show a bald teenage girl representing the masses of people diagnosed with cancer, who may indeed not survive, but who are far more likely to be older and not necessarily bald?

Having a hard hitting message is necessary in direct marketing campaigns, but playing on the emotive nature of the young 'victim' is not something which I think does the battle for cancer equality (and fundraising) any favours. It is perfectly possible to hit home the significance of cancer and the need to research into it without resorting to this.

Perhaps I wouldn't have minded if one of the 'survivors' had been bald? Perhaps I wouldn't. It would make the whole thing seem less calculated somehow. I feel that we can't talk about empowering people living with cancer whilst continuing to represent them in this narrow minded and rather old fashioned way.

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