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Snowflake advertising in a burnt-out world

How do you appeal to people who are too tired to care?

A recent newspaper article asked the question "Is compassion fatigue inevitable in an age of 24-hour news?"1 Awareness of the appalling events around the world is so high, there is a danger that we are becoming numb to it. The article quotes a columnist who says "It is damn hard to expand the limits of our empathy when our emotional attention is already stretched too thin." There is so much bad news that it feels like we're running out of emotions.

This is not to say that we are all 'snowflakes', to use the somewhat insensitive term for people with high emotional intelligence but low resilience. It suggests that compassion is a finite resource, and when you're out of empathy, all that's left is apathy. The macro signs are that people are no longer outraged by terrorist attacks, school shootings, drowning refugees, bombing of hospitals, genocide in Myanmar, or famine in Yemen. We switch channels or turn the page. The micro signs are everywhere, but they're exemplified by the finding that people are donating less to street beggars because it's too much effort to carry cash. (Beggars in Oxford have responded by wearing barcodes to allow smartphone donations.)2

Compassion fatigue is defined as "a state of exhaustion and dysfunction, biologically, physiologically and emotionally, as a result of prolonged exposure to compassion stress". It can affect anyone, but compassion fatigue first emerged as a concept in healthcare. Nurses in emergency departments were found to suffer "a unique form of burnout that affects people in the caregiving profession." Most HCPs develop strategies to improve their emotional endurance and insulate themselves from compassion fatigue. But left untreated, it leads to reduced quality of care, an increase in clinical errors, and high employee turnover.

The number of healthcare professionals in the NHS has been falling for some time. Since the 2016 five-year plan to boost the GP workforce by 5,000, the number has actually declined by 1000.3 There are shortages of nurses and midwives too. A government target to recruit 1000 apprentice nurses attracted just 30 applicants, falling 97% short of its target. There are many reasons why people are leaving the profession, but the most commonly-cited factors are burnout and excessive caseload. The burden of work and administrative tasks swamps their capacity for compassion. Put simply, they are too tired to care.

Nor is this problem limited to the NHS. Almost two-thirds of doctors in the US say they are burned out or depressed, mainly due to their work.4These stats would be concerning to any epidemiologist. They are even more worrying when you consider they relate to the caring profession. Medicine is not just an occupation, but a vocation, which attracts people motivated by the urge to help others.

The loss of actual doctors is fuelling the rise of virtual doctor services such as Babylon Health's GP at Hand. Kaiser Permanente (the leading managed care organisation in the US) now sees more patients remotely than in person. So for many patients, bedside manner is no longer part of the package.

Why do these trends matter to people who work in pharma marketing? Because healthcare professionals are our principal customers. To address their needs, we have to understand how they think and behave. Our previous article on empathology stressed the importance of putting yourself in your customers' shoes.5

We've known for a long time that advertising is more persuasive when it's grounded in emotion. Pharma ad agencies are all too eager to crank up the emotion, but all too often, the emotion focuses on the problem. Healthcare ad awards are dominated by campaigns that engage empathy without connecting to an effective solution: 'snowflake' ads which are all heart and no sinew. Many disease awareness campaigns describe their topic as "the hidden disease" or "the silent epidemic", not realising how patronising this is to HCPs who have to deal with it every day.

The answer to most medical problems is not compassionate care, but effective treatment. Yet most ads for branded medicines, which tend to be bypassed by ad awards, focus on factual content - often presented as statistical outcomes - with little emotional engagement. The two approaches lie at opposite poles.

At Life, we have a panel of HCPs who we use as a sounding board for brand strategies and creative executions - they provide a 'sanity check' to decide whether our crazy ideas should be sectioned or released into the community. The panel includes GPs, nurses and specialists, who are all survivors of the changes that have swept through the NHS over many years. Their attitude can be summed up as 'pragmatic compassion' - equivalent to 'tough love' in a parent. When patients present to them with lifestyle-related problems like obesity, but are unwilling to change their lifestyle, their typical response is: "Well, what do you expect? I will support you if you will meet me half way." It's not that they are emotionally blunted. They just recognise that empathy achieves nothing without action.

When we show them campaign ideas that focus on what their patients are going through, their reaction is: "Welcome to my world. So what else is new?" But when we ask them what they actually want from healthcare ads, their response is consistent. "Don't restate the problem; present a solution. How does this treatment make my patients' lives better, and my life easier?"

Ideally, drug ads should do 3 things: engage the reader's emotions, identify the problem, and link this to a positive outcome. It isn't easy to make all of these connections, and in most circumstances, we do well to connect one or two. We often omit the positive connection that completes the circuit, or the emotional connection that brings it down to earth.

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But that is the goal we should aim for. Otherwise we are like doctors who offer an accurate diagnosis and lots of sympathy but no treatment. By doing so we are just adding another layer of snowflake advertising. It looks pretty, but it's gone the next day.

1. https://www.theguardian.com/news/2018/aug/02/is-compassion-fatigue-inevitable-in-an-age-of-24-hour-news
2. https://www.mirror.co.uk/news/uk-news/homeless-people-now-wearing-barcodes-13054406
3. BMJ 2018; 362 doi: https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.k3429 (Published 07 August 2018) Cite this as: BMJ 2018;362:k3429
4. https://medium.com/thrive-global/hippocrates-we-have-a-problem-doctors-are-at-the-epicenter-of-burnout-5cd66f7c5a03
5. http://www.life-healthcare.com/life-blog/empathology/

©2018 Life Healthcare Communications

www.life-healthcare.com

9th May 2019

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