The Dangers of Overly Positive (and Unrealistic) Healthcare Marketing

We’ve all seen the TV commercials. The sun is shining. The actors are outside enjoying it, smiling, gardening, maybe going on a family bike ride or spending time with the dog. Someone mentions how depressed they used to be…until he or she started taking the pill being advertised.

These incredibly positive healthcare commercials–with joyful scenes, uplifting music, and promises of a better life–have become so common that they’re being parodied on shows like Saturday Night Live.

What started in pharmaceuticals has made its way to hospitals and clinics as well. It’s completely understandable why we want to connect with people on that level. An upbeat message is inspirational.

But is it always the best approach for your marketing? Is it ever possible to go too far with the positivity–to the point it creates unrealistic expectations and patronizes patients with serious health conditions?

Let’s talk about why it’s not always beneficial view the world through rose-colored glasses.

An Insightful Interview from NPR

A recent interview published in NPR shed light on this controversial topic. Here’s what Lori Wallace, a 39-year-old mother diagnosed with Stage 4 breast cancer, had to say about overly positive healthcare marketing:

“I didn’t say ‘yes’ to cancer. I have tried everything I can. I have done clinical trials. I have said ‘yes’ to every possible treatment. And the cancer doesn’t care.”

It’s easy to see where Wallace is coming from. Even though she described herself as an optimistic person before her cancer diagnosis, years of struggle and rounds of chemotherapy were enough to make her question all the pink ribbons and positivity.

One of Wallace’s biggest complaints with the overly positive messaging was that it seemed patronizing. She describes feeling like there was something wrong with her when the cancer didn’t go into remission. Like she wasn’t positive enough.

Image credit: jil111

Should You Abandon Emotional Marketing?

It’s completely understandable why healthcare providers choose positive marketing angles. Emotional appeals form the foundation of great storytelling. In a world of cutthroat competition for attention, it’s the emotion that resonates.

The risk?

Getting carried away. Planting unrealistic expectations. Or, like in Lori Wallace’s case, coming across as patronizing or making the patient feel at fault for something beyond his or her control.

You’re probably wondering what your other options are at this point. Are the only choices to go “doom and gloom” with negative marketing angles, or revert to the clinical language that makes patients’ eyes glaze over?

Not at all. Your marketing can be positive–and even inspiring–while still recognizing the reality of serious health conditions.

Pulling it off requires finding a fine balance.

Image credit: Quangpraha

How to Craft Positive Messages Without Being Unrealistic

When you’re connecting with patients diagnosed with the most serious health conditions, they’re depending on you to tell it to them honestly.

You don’t do them any favors by shielding them from the reality of the situation. It’s quite the opposite. If you present your message in a way that allows for hope without glossing over the pain and emotional toll, they’ll respect you even more.

Pain, loss, and struggle are just as important parts of the human experience as joy and hope. You can account for all of those things and truly engage them, head and heart.

Here are three quick ways how.

1. Use Content to Educate Patients Thoroughly (and in Simple Terms)

“Knowledge is power” might be an old adage, but that doesn’t make it any less true.

These days it’s becoming increasingly important. Now, when a whopping 80 percent of internet users are searching for healthcare information online, it’s crucial to empower them with everything they need to know to make the best decisions.

We’ve gone from extremely limited healthcare information to too much. The average person is completely overwhelmed.

One of the biggest values we can provide as marketers is to give patients all the information they need to:

  • Get a realistic perspective of their health situation
  • Understand symptoms and treatment options in simple terms
  • Weigh their options moving forward

Even if the prognosis is daunting, it’s better for someone to experience it with open eyes. Understanding the potential danger of a situation could, in some cases, drive people to act quickly and proactively–increasing the chances of a favorable outcome.

2. Feature Positive Stories, but Don’t Overlook the Struggle

Yes, it’s okay to feature “miracle stories” of patients who have defied all the odds. Those can and do happen. For many people struggling with a tough diagnosis, it’s a nice way to boost their spirits.

You can highlight these stories tactfully. For one, don’t edit your videos or blog posts to overlook the pain of treatment, operations, and recovery. Including the full range of experiences that led to the recovery gives current patients a more realistic portrayal. The messaging becomes more credible.

We also have to be careful not to imply everyone will experience the best possible health outcome. That’s why providing plenty of education (see the point above) along with these success stories helps place them in proper context. They pair well together: just the statistics alone might be depressing, and just the stories might be patronizing and unrealistic.

3. Just Ask

When all else fails, why not just ask?

You can have former patients review ideas for new ad campaigns, videos, or whatever else you have in mind. This will show you how the messaging comes across before the expensive investment of creating the marketing materials.

This takes effort and can slow down your campaigns a bit. But taking the time to focus group a new slogan or ad angle is well worth it. Even the savviest marketers might be way off on how patients will perceive an appeal.

Don’t forget patients’ friends and family members. They might not have dealt with the symptoms personally, but they were affected as well. These are unique sources of insight you won’t find anywhere else.

Image credit: PaelmerPhotoArts

Moving Forward

Life is full of ups and downs.

As healthcare marketers, we’re drawn to focus on the positives. We want our messages to resonate and inspire.

Unfortunately, some of us get carried away. Modern medicine, as impressive as it is, has its limits. It’s important for patients with chronic (or even life-threatening) conditions to have the information they need to make the best decisions and maintain a realistic perspective.

Finding a healthy middle ground should be done like every other aspect of your marketing: humanely.



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