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Erectile dysfunction, constipation, vaginal dryness and other laughing matters

Humour in healthcare brand communications: when and where is it appropriate?

Tim BrierleyI began thinking about this article on ‘brand creativity’ by asking myself which campaigns or ads I wish I had done. The ones I remembered seemed to fall into two camps: those that moved me to tears and those that made me smile.

It’s hard to beat a good, documentary-style ad to make you feel the raw truth staring you in the face. Pharma loves these campaigns. And then there is the funny camp. These make pharma nervous.

I asked colleagues what humorous healthcare campaigns or ads came to mind. It was surprisingly hard for them to recall many. Are there just not that many? But if not, why not?

Brand communication and advertising often use humour to get the attention of an audience and engage them. Humour can make the viewer notice, remember, share, talk about and generally feel good about a brand. But is humour a technique that is off-limits to healthcare? Is the reluctance to use humour limiting our creativity? Is it simply inappropriate or do we just need to know when and how to use it?

In doing some research, the rules seem to be as follows:

  • Temporary conditions: yes Chronic/life-threatening: no
  • OTC: yes
    Prescription: with caution
  • Common to all: yes
    Rare disease, children, marginal community: not advisable
  • Physical: maybe Psychological: no
  • Sex: yes
    Fertility: no
  • Sweden, Germany, UK, Ireland, Australia: yes
  • US: PC-police warning.

Balancing sensitivity and relevance with a smile and entertainment is the trick. ‘Should’ve gone to Spec Savers’: what a great brand-building campaign. We can laugh at people who have put off having an eye test and suffer the consequences. This fits the bill for the humour rule-book, as poor vision is something that affects the masses and is easily solved. Bad breath, dandruff, corns, hay fever, coughs and colds are all ‘game on’.

It would also seem we can have a laugh at conditions that affect ‘down there’ or relate to sex. But the same rules of positive outcomes and laughing ‘with’ not ‘at’ those afflicted apply. Diarrhoea, constipation, flatulence, leaky bladder, vaginal dryness - it’s all fertile territory.

Pfizer Canada some years ago put out a Viagra campaign that falls into my ‘I wish I’d done that’ basket. ‘The Cure for Antiquing’ campaign centred around those hobbies that couples took up instead of having sex. For example, ‘Antiquing’ (the incessant search for antiques in stores and markets), ‘Strolling’ and ‘Redecorating’:

The ads presented couples ingenuously talking about their love for the hobby, then how Viagra ‘cured’ their antiquing, spoken to cameras with mischievous looks and loving smiles to their partner. ‘So I tried Viagra and my strolling sort of stopped.’ The charm and simple truth that we all know what we’d rather be doing, is inclusive and positive. There is a ‘happy ending’ for the sufferer, and you’ve just gotta love an ad that has cleverly managed to use a claim of a cure.

The Swedish Vagifem ad has won recognition for its charming and uncomfortable way about playing with context. It presents a dinner party conversation among middle-aged couples about vaginal dryness. It states all the essential facts about the condition and how to solve it (tick, tick, tick, to the client’s information wish-list) and juxtaposes these in an inappropriate setting eliciting an awkward laugh from us

I suspect Scandanavians are more progressive than most countries though. Would the US have been willing to run it? Geography is a challenge when using humour for a global campaign; what the Brits find funny might not tickle the funny bone of the French… (Australians will laugh at anything).

An Irritable Bowel Syndrome campaign tackled the challenge of IBS not being taken seriously by actually using humour. Normally there is a fear that a condition or disease might not be seen as credible. However, FiberOne poked fun at doctors and their scepticism of the legitimacy of IBS. This campaign showed doctors suffering from Irritable Disbelief Syndrome (IDS) - a brave move but exactly the perception shift required to encourage the brand to be recommended. Gently poking fun at your prescribers required a brave client. Would you have been as bold?

Another consideration is gender divide. There was, for a while, a trend to laugh at the failings of men, depicting them as less evolved than women. The ‘stupid husband’ idea is now to be avoided, however, not because it is insulting but because it is lame and tired.

One highly awarded campaign shines a light on hypocrisy in society that could be seen as humorous because of its satirical nature. The Argentinian #Manboobsforboobs campaign became the most viewed and shared breast self-examination video ever:

Apart from encouraging breast self-examination for the early detection of cancer and informing people how to perform the exam, the campaign started a debate around censorship. The creators used an overweight man with ‘manboobs’ and had a woman’s arms encircling from behind to show how to examine your breasts. There were, of course, those that tried to stop it. What if they were mistaken for a woman’s breasts? And is it the term ‘boobs’ that is offensive or is it an overweight semi-naked man?

Context is very important and seeing something on TV in prime time can be received quite differently when viewed during late-night programming (without the children around).

In most cases the source of a message is a pharmaceutical company or government body, so it is totally understandable the ‘voice’ must align with corporate values, even if the brand itself has a more renegade personality. Where there is some latitude is if a third party spokesperson can take ownership and there is clear separation of a ‘personal’ view or experience.

Actors and comedians are great storytellers and can be self-deprecating but not self-demeaning. They expose their vulnerabilities while showing strength and applying some ‘you just gotta laugh’ attitude to the challenges they face. Humour helps the audience sympathise and empathise, without pity.

This bravery also applies to putting a condition or disease into the public spotlight and can help break down barriers and challenge stigmas. An ‘I’m not ashamed’ confidence when presenting something with humour or in a matter-of-fact way has a raw honesty we admire. Humour can involve us in a story so the real message hits home in unexpected ways.

“1 in 5 people have dandruff. 1 in 4 people have mental health problems. I’ve had both,” said Ruby Wax.

Lending a touch of humour can make something seem less fearsome, or distant. It’s all about laughing at yourself, not laughing at others and never making a joke at the expense of those less fortunate than yourself.

Billy Connolly received the news of his diagnosis for dementia and prostate cancer on the same day:

“It was a funny week. On the Monday I got hearing aids. On the Tuesday I got pills for heartburn, which I have to take all the time. And on the Wednesday I got news that I had prostate cancer and Parkinson’s disease… But when we went into the living room I went, phrrhrht,” he said, blowing a raspberry. “I think they’re very closely related, deep despair and laughing. And I wasn’t in any pain.”

He was given the all-clear after surgery. At a gig in 2016 he forgot his lines, re-igniting speculation about his health. He replied the gaff had nothing to do with his condition, “I’ve lost my train of thought all my career. It’s what makes me different from everybody else.”

They say ‘laughter is the best medicine’, but take as prescribed and don’t exceed the recommended dose.

Tim Brierley is creative strategy director of Grey Health Group

In association with


12th July 2017

From: Marketing



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