Keep’n it Real in Healthcare Advertising

Television! - Chelsea GraingerBlog post by Colin Hung

It’s in our biology to trust what we see with our eyes. This makes living in a carefully edited, overproduced and photoshopped world very dangerous.

Brene Brown

Next Tuesday (November 8th) is election day in the US. Four years ago in 2012, we made the decision not to hold a tweetchat because (a) we figured everyone would be glued to their TVs and (b) we wanted to encourage everyone to get out and vote.

In the four years since 2012, the #hcldr community has grown and now there are people from all over the world that participate in our tweetchat. So, we’ve decided to continue with our chat even though one of the most important votes in American history will be happening at the same time.

To all our US community members – please exercise your votes. No matter which way you are leaning, it is important that you use your vote and be part of the democratic process. Brave men and women have fought wars in order to ensure we have the right to cast a ballot.

To all our non-US community members – please join our chat while listening to US election coverage in the background. Oh and don’t worry, we’re opting for a “light” topic next Tuesday. We’re going to be chatting about advertising.

I travel to the US often for my work and it’s impossible to ignore the political ads that bombard your senses in the months leading up to the US election. The ads saturate TV and fill the airwaves. Most of the ads are negative. Most paint the world in a very bias brush. It’s all puppies and rainbows if you vote for the right candidate vs impending doom if you vote for the “other” candidate. The battle ground for the US election is TV and the media, not on Main Street USA.

Seeing all these political ads recently got me thinking about how healthcare is depicted in advertising. Specifically, how are marketers showing healthcare in their ads? Are they showing reality? Doom-and-gloom? Or a stylized ideal state?

SickKids Hospital in Toronto recently launched in a new and somewhat controversial TV ad campaign.

I first saw the “Undeniable” ad while watching my beloved Blue Jays take on the Texas Rangers in the 2016 ALDS. It was the perfect venue for that TV spot given the sports visuals that are in the ad itself. I was transfixed and I actually paused to watch it a few times.

What struck me most about the ad was how it boldly showed healthcare as it really is. There are scenes of parents in anguish, of doctors looking concerned and patients expressing their frustration. For those of us in Canada, it also showed the reality of our healthcare facilities – the rooms are stark, empty, old and in one scene you can see a “ward room” where patients are separated only by a curtain (sadly these ward rooms are all too common in Canada’s hospitals).

I wanted to find out more about the ad so I went to the SickKids website and there I confirmed a suspicion – that the doctors, nurses, parents and patients were not actors. Below is a quote from Lori Davison, Vice President of Brand Strategy and Communication at SickKids Foundation.

A campaign of this magnitude has never been attempted in the hospital before. More than 100 staff members helped out either in front of the camera or behind the scenes. Volunteering to be on camera goes above and beyond the call of duty and enabled this very complex commercial to be shot authentically. Approximately 50 patient families also agreed to be filmed. The fact that the commercials are filled with real staff, real parents and real patients adds a special component to the final product.

Honestly I’m not sure what to think about having real patients in TV ads. On one hand I applaud the realism. I think it is much more powerful to show healthcare as it really is rather than a stylized Hollywood version of it. Having actual patients in ads is about as real as it gets. On the other hand, are foundations and healthcare organizations exploiting patients and families when they include them in ads? I recognize that all of them volunteer their time and make the conscious choice to be included, but someone in the chain of the ad’s creation is making a profit. So indirectly these patients, families and hospital staff are helping to put dollars into someone’s pocket. Is that right? Is that just a consequence of doing something for the greater good?

Davison wisely addresses this potential issue in her note about the ad campaign:

What’s more, all of our agency partners involved in this campaign generously did so at deeply discounted rates, even pro bono in some cases, enabling us to produce the campaign with the same modest budget as in previous years and at a fraction of what it would cost in the private sector.

What I really love about the new SickKids campaign is that is shows patients not as victims of their disease, but as brave fighters against it.

Please join us on Tuesday November 8th at 8:30pm Eastern (for your local time click here) when the #hcldr community will gather to discuss the following topics:

  • T1 How do you feel about using actual patients, families and doctors in healthcare advertising?
  • T2 How should patients be depicted in advertising? Fighters? Beneficiaries? Inspirational?
  • T3 What are the elements of good healthcare advertising ? Examples of good ads?
  • T4 As a healthcare leader what direction would you give to the team that was creating an ad for your organization?


“The ethics of advertising for health care services”, Schenker, Arnold and London, American Journal of Bioethics, 2014,, accessed 6 November 2016

“The ethics of marketing cancer”, Randall Holcombe, Journal of Cancer Policy, 12 February 2015,, accessed 6 November 2016

“Hospital Advertising: Good Business or Time to Pull the Plug?”, Wharton University of Pennsylvania, 24 September 2014,, accessed 6 November 2016

“No Actors, Just Patients in Unvarnished Spots for Hospitals”, Andrew Adam Newman, New York Times, 3 May 2009,, accessed 6 November 2016

“The empowering new SickKids commercial”, Breakfast Television, 28 October 2016,, accessed 6 November 2016

Image Credit

Television! – Chelsea Grainger




  1. […] Colin Hung wrote a great post over on the Healthcare Leadership blog and shares a video, used as a TV commercial, that includes actual patients, according to Colin’s blog post. […]

  2. I saw the VS video as well and it was very powerful. I used to volunteer at SickKids hospital, never had a chance to work there unfortunately.

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