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Re-awakening the emotion in healthcare communications

How the healthcare industry can use emotive storytelling to engage its audience

Grant FisherUsing emotion in storytelling isn’t new. It has been, and will continue to be, at the forefront of all human interaction - whether it’s a mother teaching her child right from wrong, or a doctor trying to explain challenging and technical data.

For the PR and marketing industries, the use of emotion is key. We have been using it to sell products ever since Thomas J Barratt, seen by many as ‘the father of modern advertising’, worked with Pears soap creating targeted slogans, images and phrases.

For healthcare companies, it was the same. However, it started to change when the ABPI established the Prescription Medicines Code of Practice Authority (PMCPA) in 1993 to operate the Code of Practice for the pharmaceutical industry.

It came to a head in 1999, when Pharmacia and Upjohn (acquired by Pfizer in 2002) developed and delivered a campaign geared around a TV ad to raise awareness of incontinence. At the time, they knew the campaign would test the new rules banning advertising of prescription-only drugs direct to the public. Other pharmaceutical companies watched from the sidelines closely.

The PMCPA found Pharmacia and Upjohn in breach of the industry’s code. A newly cautious industry became even more cautious.

Accurate, factual communication is obviously important when discussing people’s healthcare. However, I would argue the industry has struggled to remain within the Code while delivering creative, emotive campaigns. There is an over-reliance on information communication. Fact after fact after fact, with very little emotion included. And that is never good. Companies have lost their personalities and people are being swamped with information that they don’t understand and many don’t need to know.

While other industries have moved full-steam ahead with emotive storytelling to engage and inform people, the healthcare industry has been left behind.

Don’t get me wrong, there have been excellent examples of product and disease awareness campaigns in recent times using emotion to tell compelling stories. One example is the Teddy Bears’ Picnic on the banks of the river Thames near Tower Bridge, which aimed to raise awareness of bacterial meningitis. Each bear (there were 3,400) represented someone who will contract the life-threatening disease in the UK every year. The number of those who will die from the disease in a year is 10%. It pulls at the heartstrings while having a clear message about numbers and the age group affected.

However it’s only now that we are starting to see a fresher approach from pharmaceutical companies. It seems that people are starting to look for creative campaigns with very clear messages, delivered in an emotive way. This could be attributed to a realisation that the Code shouldn’t be seen as a barrier but as a guide, and the variety of channels we can use to reach people works better with emotion in mind - whether it is video, immersive events or virtual reality. We are starting to see the fruits of this mindset shift.

A clear example of this can be seen in last year’s winner of the Grand Prix in the pharmaceutical category at the Cannes Lions International Festival. Ogilvy & Mather came up with the ‘Breathless Choir’ for Philips to promote a medical device. By telling an empowering story of how a group of people with breathing disabilities learned to sing, the campaign is a perfect example of how to use emotive storytelling in healthcare. The group ultimately ended up performing at the Apollo Theater in Harlem. It’s well worth a watch!

It is always worth remembering that people retain emotive stories. They remember them and share them with their friends, family and even their doctors.

Facts through emotion are hard-hitting and as an industry we are finally starting to make big strides in doing this on a more regular basis. I, for one, can’t wait to see more amazing campaigns and stories from my peers that really help the people we are trying to reach.

Grant Fisher is associate director at firstlight, a communications agency working across corporate, technology and healthcare

In association with


12th June 2017

From: Healthcare



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