Cancer Centers Ads Are Heavy On Emotion, Light On Facts, New Research Has Found

VACAVILLE, CA - DECEMBER 17: (Editorial Use Only) John Gillis (the prisoner's name has been changed at his request), age 73, a hospice care patient diagnosed with terminal colon cancer, brushes his hair in the hospice care wing of California Medical Facility (CMF) on December 17, 2013 in Vacaville, California. Gillis is serving a 30 year sentence for a crime he chose to not disclose. He was diagnosed with cancer in April 2013; doctors currently expect him to live another three months. Gillis says he has lost 70 pounds over the last six weeks, though he won't take pain medication. Gillis believes terminal patients should be allowed out of prison, stating, 'there's no need for [holding terminal patients in prison] - who's a threat to society in here?' While California has a compasionate release program for terminal patients in the last six months of life, the decision is ultimately made by judges, who frequently deny the request. CMF's hospice was the first of it's kind, originally created in the 1980s during the HIV/AIDS epidemic. The program currently holds 17 beds. When a patient arrives in CMF's hospice, doctors immediately apply for compassionate release. As of June 2013, California had 133,000 prisoners, of which 15,000 were over the age of 55. The U.S. incarcerates more people than any other country in the world, and as of 2010 the national prison population was 2.26 million people. According to Human Rights Watch, between 1995 and 2010 the total number of state and federal prisoners incresased by 42%, while the number of prisoners 55-and-older skyrocketed by 282%. (Photo by Andrew Burton/Getty Images)
Source: Andrew Burton/Getty Images News/Getty Images

A new study has found that ads for cancer centers have heavy emotional appeal, and often do so in lieu of presenting relevant factual or statistical information. Published Monday in the Annals of Internal Medicine, the research found that a vast majority of over 400 nationwide ads in 2012, both in print and on television, didn't include any information on potential outcomes or costs associated with a particular course of cancer treatment.

Of the ads surveyed, a large margin at 88 percent talked about cancer treatment, 18 percent specifically mentioning "cancer screenings." But the percentage of ads that actually gave any details about what the word "treatment" might entail — the likelihood of positive or negative outcomes, or how much money it might take to achieve either — was miniscule. Only two percent of the ads went into any specificity on risk-benefit level, and just five percent were willing to talk dollars and cents.

Rather, about half of the advertisements opted for the personal appeal, using patient testimonies, presumably to highlight a lived example of hope and perseverance, and to stir such feelings in the viewer. None of the ads, however, mentioned what would be the expected outcome would be for an average patient. 

Some of the ads took a step further, using not just the language of hope to stir a reaction, but that of fear as well — 30 percent of them mentioned death and loss. What the study didn't look at was whether this marketing style has any distinct impact. In the eyes of its lead researcher, Dr. Yael Schenker of the University of Pittsburgh, that's an important further question: 

This study only analyzed the content of the ads. This is a first step. An important next step would be to look at whether there are effects on patients. ... Just be aware that these ads focus on emotional appeal. They're not going to give you balanced information on treatments, risks and costs.

While there's no telling which ads exactly the study examined, save that they were in circulation throughout 2012, its findings probably don't come as too great a shock to anybody who's seen a ads for cancer centers. And just two years later, things haven't seemed to change that much. While none of this reflects on the diligent and life-saving work done at so many of these institutions, when it comes time to make a pitch, all those facts and numbers get thrown out in favor of a tug on the heart-strings.


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