In the books Thinking Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman and The Master and his Emissary by Iain McGilchrist, the authors explore the workings of the human brain. I think we can use their insights to help build #AHealthierNation, especially if we consider the workings of the Human Brain Vs. Pharma TV Spots.
Both authors point out that our brains are hot wired to detect danger before safety. We detect anger in others before joy. This extends to images and words, even those in abstract of a lived experience. For example, we can detect an angry face in a picture of a crowd of happy people faster than we can detect a happy face in a crowd of angry people. The mention of a word associated with danger, even in absence of that danger in the present lived experience, triggers lightning quick brain activity associated with a threat. This has been studied and documented with MRI data.
Kahneman points out the we live our lives as stories, collections of experiences and memories that ideally come to a happy finale, and this is what we remember. In a particularly interesting chapter, he explores the idea of duration neglect and how as humans, we will willingly endure protracted and difficult experiences if the goal, outcome and future memory would be a positive gain.
One example he explains is that of amnesic vacations. An oversimplification; the duration of a vacation ideally has an effect on its quality. I think we’d all agree that 6 days are better than 3. But if the last day of the 6-day vacation is a poor experience, the overriding memory will be one of an unhappy vacation, despite the duration. This is the peak ending and most dominant lasting memory. For more on this you can watch his TED talk here.
Both of these books are fascinating and entirely different, but with many corollaries that make them worth reading. The Master and his Emissary makes clear the right brain is dominant in the role of detecting the incongruent, new, exciting and dangerous. The left brain is dominant in breaking it down into known bits of lived experience and cataloging it so as to help us detect the new vs the known, different or dangerous. There is a mysterious beauty to the power of this duality and the yin-yang balance that it achieves to help us detect danger and feel safe. You can watch him illustrate this in his TED talk here.
If we apply these findings of the workings of the human brain Vs. Pharma TV spots, it would suggest that ending a commercial with 30 seconds of “fair balance” that rattles off all the negative potential consequences of the therapy is not a good idea if we want people to seek out, consume and adhere to that treatment. What memory are we left with? What is the cumulative effect of these negative associations to the psychology of Americans, to what is now decades of exposure to often potentially life threatening consequences of treatment? We are putting our minds on high alert and then leaving ourselves with negative memories.
The FDA lives a paradox of endorsing the use of effective therapies that are proven safe and at the same time controlling how they are promoted.
The use of Fair Balance was deemed a reasonable solution to keep some checks and balances in the system. One early justification for direct-to-consumer advertising for healthcare products was that it would help make people healthier by helping them recognize health issues and solutions to what is ailing them. That said, I would argue it is not working entirely as hoped. Direct-to-consumer advertising has certainly proven to sell more drugs but is it really helping? Adherence and compliance rates remain terrible. As a nation we are not among the healthiest, despite having the one of the best healthcare systems in the world. I can’t help but feel that there exists an unintended and negative consequence of bombarding our culture with therapy risk profiles instead of more positive educational messages about living a healthy and happy life.
I’m not suggesting that the problems of adherence and compliance have been caused by advertising, they certainly predate it. What I am suggesting is that advertising executed in this way has become just another part of the problem and it’s time to consider alternative approaches that not only make us aware of solutions but improve long-term outcomes for #AHealthierNation.
Advertising is part of the brand experience and nobody wants to experience side-effects, even in the abstract. Patients need to be educated about the potential risks of any treatment and there are other and potentially better ways to provide this learning. Awareness advertising by its very nature employs both reach and frequency to achieve its goal. The persistent drumming of risk factors in combination with how our brains are hot wired to detect risk is a perfect storm. Our abilities to detect risk and the frequency of exposure caused by this type of advertising may be creating strong negative associations with these brands specifically and perhaps more detrimentally, pharmaceutical therapies overall.
On any given night during a TV commercial break it is not uncommon to see 2-3 pharma spots back-to-back. This results in approximately 1.5 minutes of nausea, hives, Arrhythmia, trouble breathing, night sweats, diarrhea, dizziness, life threatening rash, allergic reactions, suicidal thoughts, dry mouth, internal bleeding, increased blood pressure, stroke, liver damage, heart attack and other potential drug-drug and dietary interactions that in rare cases have caused death.
This parade of alarm bells is made no less volatile by the mostly generic visual backdrop of smiling happy people and the sometimes over-qualified claims of efficacy. Remember we’re hot wired to detect risk before all else. How’s that for a side effect? Human Brain Vs. Pharma TV could be a perfect storm of unintended consequences. June 2014 saw the beginning of OpenFDA an effort to make accessible the FDA database of side effects, drug labels, warnings, food recalls. This project is still in Beta but it holds great promise to help us better manage and understand the insights available through this repository and how insights gained across drug and device class can inform #AHealtherNation and perhaps will give us opportunity to create better, more positive and educational TV spots.
As communicators we can do better to create a #AHealthierNation and support our Physicians and other healthcare workers to help us live healthier lives.
In March of 2015 the legendary filmmaker Albert Maysles left this earth for the great beyond. In his lifetime he and his brother David, who passed many years before, established a way of working in documentary film that elevated our ability to see life as it truly is, with as little artifice as possible. The December 27, 2015 issue of the NY Times Sunday Magazine brought Albert Maysles and the work of The Maysles Brothers back to me in the cover article, The Lives They Lived.
The seminal work of The Maysles Brothers are many. If you have not seen them, you should watch a few: http://mayslesfilms.com/films.
The Maysles Brothers work continues to have significant impact on filmmakers around the world. Their approach was strongly observational and the aesthetic, sparse. Their faith in reality, as more interesting than fiction, created films of a raw, visceral quality. Occasionally hard to watch but impossible to look away.
Albert Maysles began his career as a teacher of Psychology. It was an interest in filming the life of patients in a mental hospital that represents his very first film, Psychiatry in Russia. This drive to represent reality unfiltered, to show things as they are, still holds incredible power and potential, especially in healthcare.
Early in my foray into Healthcare advertising I was doing a lot of work for broadcast. I certainly contributed my share of work to what is now the formula.
I was really fortunate to work with Maysles Shorts, a division of the company helmed by David McNamara. As a division of Maysles Films, it was anchored in the traditions the brothers had established. David and I did some really nice work together. We did our best to break from the mold. I’m not sure if the Maysles hired David because he has a gifted eye, or because they saw in him a devotion to a way of working that would continue to represent life as it truly is. Regardless, David is an excellent filmmaker with an approach that is all his own; straightforward and honest too. Today, David is dedicating his many talents to creating meaningful human connection with Samadhi.
It is more important than ever to create work with strength and honesty. Work that connects deeply and goes beyond selling treatments and help patients understand the value of wellness. It’s time to explore new ways of representing and seeing solutions in healthcare that improve on what has been achieved thus far. The work of the Maysles Brothers remains so powerful because it is work that has a Head For The Heart. It is a belief in the intimate power of life as it truly is. True stories told with un-glossed honesty that capture human nature with an observing, unwavering respect for humanity.
On Thursday night, December 3 we celebrated the best of Healthcare and Wellness Advertising with the Global Awards at The NY Academy of Sciences. It was a big night with a tremendous volume of great work from around the globe. The passion and integrity of the work never ceases to amaze me. The world of Health and Wellness advertising continues to expand as the world wakes up to the idea that there is much more to staying healthy than taking pills. Western medicine continues to bring us many great therapies and we should never lose sight of that even as we expand our minds with more Eastern ideas of health and well being.
Disease awareness continues to gain momentum; It proves its potential as a strong alternative to branded advertising when it comes to audience engagement. If you read my recent blog post, Unstuck Yourself With Incongruity, on the importance of incongruity in the creation of and receptivity to ideas, you’ll note how the use of fair balance has potential to alert the brain to the potentially negative consequences of any given therapy. Consider the lingering effects of such messages when it comes to the pervasive lack of compliance and adherence that plagues the industry. Unbranded and disease awareness work are really important because engaging the brain in the context of a positive story will help improve the effectiveness of communication. Unencumbered from the negative messages of fair balance, we can help move individuals to a more positive and adherent lifestyle. This method can effectively engage the ego-energy of the individual with positive, affirming associations of the self.
The healthcare industry will always need communications that are focused on helping physicians better understand the medicines they prescribe. I’m sure most of us would like to see this work realized with more emotionally engaging ideas similar to what is now happening in unbranded efforts targeting consumers. Another area that is finally maturing in its potential is digital. Perhaps we have finally crossed a threshold; we are seeing very little digital work for digital sake. Achieving meaningful integration of ideas and medium delivers a powerful ecosystem of care that benefits everyone involved. This integration effectively unites all stakeholders into one seamless engagement. This type of work holds great promise to affect positive behavior change in all audiences, including physicians.
Last year in my blog post for the Global Awards I spoke of the deepening integration of digital into our lives, The Next Challenge for Global Healthcare Agencies and I believe this year we are beginning to see the potential of truly integrated ideas. There were a couple of entries this year that illustrate this point and I encourage you to be inspired by all of the winners here. One elegant creative solution is the idea called Penny The Pirate. Penny the Pirate is a brilliant integration of multimedia and delivers a concept that is anchored in a meaningful digital platform in conjunction with a delightful analogue solution. Say Ahoj to Penny the Pirate as she sets a new benchmark in integration. Penny the Pirate is from the great minds at Saatchi & Saatchi Sydney — Bravo to our friends down under.
With digital settling into truly meaningful integration, another positive aspect to this work is the trend we’re seeing in the return to ideas with traditional chops; ideas and executions not overreaching with digital hijinks — solid, great ideas…we might even call them analogue — resplendent in their simplicity and brilliance. This year’s Grand Global winner, the Luck Plan from Downtown Partners delivers on all fronts. The Windy City claims the big win; congratulations to the team..
Brandforming was honored this year to pick-up the mantle and create the key art for this year’s show. What a great way for agencies to support the Global Awards and their theme of creative globalization. You can read more about the origins of the idea, the art creation and the collaborative work that made it happen by going here.
When you are looking for something new and different and captivating, look to your right. When you are looking for something familiar and undifferentiated and understood look to your left.
When thinking up ideas and reviewing concepts and potential ways to execute them it is essential to consider the inherent tension in the idea, the contrast.
This is the thing that drives an idea, its internal flame. Great brands thrive on one insightful point of tension that the product or service can overcome. And the campaigns that deliver these ideas with great creativity propel these brands to stardom.
Volvo cars thrive on the idea of safety which resolves the fear of injury or death. BMW thrives on its idea of the ultimate driving machine, casting itself against dull imperfection, sensory deprivation and blandness. These are emotionally driven ideas, that touch the heart. Achieving the whitest whites in your laundry is not simply about whiteness, it’s about knowing you’ve done the best job you can, of achieving a visible perfection.
But why do ideas like these work? Why do campaigns like these hold our attention? It all comes down to the way our minds work. The left brain-right brain functionality forever studied and in some cases grossly oversimplified, hold the key to understanding what make a great idea — great.
The functionality of the right brain is dominant in alertness to new, different, incongruent and more “emotional” points of tension that appeal to our emotional self. The left brain functions as a sort of running catalogue of all things known, understood and expected. The left brain is so good at this that it gives the right brain the full freedom to perform the major task of keeping us alive to anything new at all — good or bad – it is our early warning system. The scanning, searching, emotional nature of the right and the deconstructing, comparative, analytical left come together to define the essence of who we are and our relationship to the world — our ego. This coming together to form what I’ll call the ego-energy of left and right brain function is very much a complimentary end game. Failing to satisfy one, comes at the risk of losing the other.
Effectively engaging both could be considered as producing a whole brain affect. The significance of this can not be overstated when it comes to creating ideas, because this is the terrain of the big idea.
Let’s consider the ubiquitous “Pharma Beach” ads. I’m not sure who originally coined this phrase. It started as a slight to the ever present execution of people on beaches in pharmaceutical advertising and now seems to have grown in meaning to include all the usual slice of life stuff we’ve grown so accustomed to seeing day in and day out. Pharma Beach must be a pretty big place, maybe even bigger than the Hampton’s. At this point there are so many people enjoying Pharma Beach that it would seem we’ve all been cured. Unfortunately that’s far from the truth, and for advertisers “Pharma Beach” has grown so familiar it is not the best place to attempt to differentiate your brand.
Ideas that wash up on Pharma Beach are known and easily broken up into familiar catalogued bits by the left brain, filed and put away — a place for everything and everything in its place. The right brain has little time or attention to give to the familiar and generic. It looks past the known and understood — the generic. Why create a generic campaign for a branded product?
This is why so many campaigns fail to deliver the true potential of a brand— they die of boredom, sequestered in the left brain catalogue of “I’ve seen this before.”
The capacity of the left brain to break things down into the known and understood can cause a kind of circular thinking; its constant need to dominate the world by manipulating it into known components can hold us back from creating and trusting differentiated ideas.
Like victims of Stockholm syndrome we grow sympathetic to our captor and are held by our left brain’s incessant desire to break everything down into known bits, catalogue it for us and keep our world nice and tidy, and we like it. This functionality of the left brain helps us reside comfortably in the known world but it can also keep us from breaking free.
If you want work that breaks through, then we need to break-through to the right brain. There are no formulas for this, no secret ingredient that will make you successful. There is only the need for a commitment that goes for the heart, that stirs the emotion that appeals to the ego. Ideally this is supported by a brand essence that embraces a meaningful incongruity that can only be resolved by the product or service itself.
It is hard work but when you Head For The Heart, great things happen.
A few weeks ago the nice people at the Clio Awards were kind enough to give me the opportunity to share news of my new creative agency and general point-of-view about work in the healthcare space.
I was really pleased to find this article in the Harvard Business Review that underscores and supports the approach we’re taking at Brandforming. In this article, Innovation Starts with the Heart, Not The Head, Author Gary Hamel tells the story of a health system in southwest Michigan that completely turned around their patient satisfaction scores when they started listening to their hearts.
As noted in my Clio Blog post, an industry obsessed with data points, medical technology and medical-science discourse, it is easy lose sight of the patient while geeking out over the great advancements being made. Letting all of these advances turn the art of healing into a loss of humanness leaves the job half done.