Cancer Ads Are Heavy On Emotion, Light On Facts

by Chris Tognotti

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.