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Smart Thinking blog

Insights and expert advice on the key issues facing today’s pharma marketer

Using humour in healthcare marketing

Is laughter the best medicine?
Test your poo

Fast track

  • Humour suits some strategic challenges better than others
  • Humour can be a powerful creative strategy where the healthcare challenge is to: create surprising cut-through; re-frame myths and excuses; or to challenge fears
  • Avoid offence by thinking laterally about where permission to be funny might be located for your particular health topic.

A couple of years ago Google set out to find four of the most iconic advertising campaigns of all time and re-imagine them for the digital age. The final line-up in Project Re:Brief included work by Coke, AVIS and Volvo – along with a 1972 campaign for Alka-Seltzer.

Entitled 'I can't believe I ate the whole thing' the original Alka-Seltzer ad was a pitch perfect, deadpan exchange between a queasily bewildered husband and his wife. Exactly what the man had eaten the whole of has been the subject of speculation and parody for decades in the US. Now the phrase is a much-loved part of American culture, even garnering the ultimate modern accolade – a reference in television series The Simpsons.

Reflecting on this advert got me wondering: could a humorous healthcare ad ever create the same loving notoriety today? Sure, the regulatory framework makes it more challenging. But looking at today's healthcare marketing, I can't help wondering if clients and agencies have just fallen out of love with funny healthcare ads.

The 'I can't believe I ate the whole thing' commercial for Alka-Seltzer

Right now, the creative pendulum seems to have swung towards Upworthy-worthy creative designed to make us see the individuals behind the illness. There's beautiful photography that captures real human lives; beautiful animation lifting the lid on real life experiences; but precious few beautifully crafted gags.

As an example, across the 90 gongs given-out at the 2014 international IPA Best of Health Awards, only three campaigns took an outright humorous approach. So it seems to me that funny healthcare ads have become the giant pandas of the healthcare marketing world. Lovely things that we all like the idea of, but nigh-on impossible to breed successfully making them borderline extinct. But from scarcity comes opportunity. If you can take a rib-tickling zig, while competitors stick with a po-faced zag, the greater prize could well be yours.

The Scottish Government recently launched a detect cancer early initiative that included the 'Don't Get Scared Get Checked' campaign. This used a range of humorous techniques to achieve its goal of reducing the fears which prevent people taking part in screening and acting quickly on possible signs of cancer.

The cheekily humorous script was delivered by Scottish comedian Elaine C Smith (whose credits include Rab C Nesbitt) and the television advert featured real photos of breast cancer symptoms. This was a UK TV first and helped boost GP presentation with breast symptoms by 50%.

The Don't Get Scared, Get Checked campaign used comedian Elaine C Smith to help raise awareness of breast cancer symptoms

The power of humour is also evident in social media; the IPA Best of Health Award winning video 'The Poo Song' (a catchy animated ditty about poo testing) made young people nudge older family members into doing their home bowel screening test.

The Poo Song helped raise awareness of bowel cancer in Scotland

But how can you tell if a humorous approach is right for your healthcare marketing or not? There are three strategic challenges which tend to lend themselves well to a humorous creative solution.

1. When the challenge is cut-through

“People are bombarded with thousands of messages every day” says Phil Evans, creative group head at The Leith Agency.  “So the first requirement of any campaign is to get noticed. And that means using all the tools at your disposal. Humour is one of them. As long as it's relevant.” But according to Phil, the trick isn't just about being funny – it's about being funny in ways that people don't expect. “The best work comes out of the blue. Like 'Dumb Ways To Die', for example. Who'd have thought being run over by a train could be so hilarious? It's brilliant because it's brilliantly surprising.”

To be brilliantly surprising you have to leave mild puns at the door and commit to the humour. The recent WindSetlers TV commercials, (Thornton & Ross / Bray Leino), where outrageously rude talking food makes people feel uncomfortable, is properly silly. But it's funny and memorable as a result.

The WindSetlers advertisement finds humour in the rudeness of the talking food

2. When the challenge is re-framing

Misperceptions, myths or excuses are another strategic challenge where humour can come into its own. One of my favourite funny health campaigns from recent years is the Canadian smoking cessation campaign. It ridicules the language of 'social smoking' by comparing it to 'social farting', (sample line: “Just because I fart at parties now and then – it doesn't make me a farter”). This is a great example of humour being deployed strategically in order to put a wobble under convenient excuses and stock defences.

The Canadian advert was part of a $2.7m health ministry antismoking campaign.

This type of humour is definitely at the more challenging and confrontational end of the scale, zoning-in on a point of ridicule.  As a result, it tends to work best when the execution is boldly (rather than mildly) funny, and where the issue at the heart is clear-cut (eg harmful, dangerous or illegal) and hard to refute.

3. When the challenge is fear

Fear can paralyse good healthcare decision-making. Used sensitively, humour can deflate fears and overcome taboos.

In the words of Lisa King, senior associate director at research agency TNS: “[H]umour seems to be a counter-intuitive move in social marketing on health issues as it can undermine the gravitas of a message. On the issue of cancer, however, it has had a paradoxical effect by disarming audiences and creating receptivity to an issue that they might otherwise have been closed off to”.

Commenting on the Scottish Government cancer campaign Lisa points out that “alongside other factors, the levity of tone created by the use of humour in the Scottish Government's breast and bowel cancer campaigns has played an important role in helping to dispel the taboo status of cancer, which was an emotional barrier preventing people from getting themselves checked or screened”.

If you're using humour to tackle strong fears, it's worth remembering that a little levity can often go a long way. A good tip to avoid offence is to think hard about where you locate the permission for your humour. The Scottish public allowed Elaine C Smith to be boldly cheeky about breast cancer symptoms because they knew her mother had died from the disease and that it was a cause close to the comedian's heart.

So ask yourself: who has most permission to find the humour in your health topic. Is it the patient? The patient's kids? The patient's dog? The patient's toothbrush? You may be surprised at how permission to be funny can be unlocked when you think laterally about where to locate it.

Perhaps this was the enduring genius of that 1972 Alka-Seltzer ad. By never revealing what it was that the main character 'ate the whole thing' of, it locates the humour in the funniest place of all. Our own imaginations.

Article by
Thea McGovern

is associate planner at The Leith Agency. Contact her: and @theasgarden on Twitter

13th November 2014

From: Marketing, Healthcare



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