Not-So-Super Ads

Gienna Shaw, for HealthLeaders Media, February 6, 2008
I'm not much into football, but every year I do tune into the Super Bowl. Thing is, I usually read a book while the players are on the field, and only pay attention to the action that really interests me: the ads. This year I should have just stuck with my book. OK, I laughed a couple of times during the commercial breaks. Hit rewind on the TiVo remote once or twice. But overall, it was a pretty lackluster showing.

Even edgy brands seem to have lost their edge.

Call it the Janet Jackson effect--companies are more worried about the risks of taking a risk than they are interested in the potential rewards. They don't want to damage their reputations or suffer negative word-of-mouth, even though controversy often equals free publicity.

Healthcare advertising isn't exactly known for being edgy, either. But there are signs that healthcare marketers are taking more risks, trying new ideas, and experimenting with new media.

In Framingham, MA, one billboard in a series of public service campaigns about the dangers associated with childhood obesity was yanked because the ad showed a little too much of an overweight teen's skin. Other in-your-face spots, however, remained in place.

In Fayetteville, NC, controversy erupted recently over a billboard for Cape Fear Plastic Surgery that showed bare skin of the sculpted adult variety. At least one city councilor thought there ought to be a law against that kind of thing, though town council intervened with a primer on the First Amendment, and the ads remain.

And in San Francisco, St. Mary's Medical Center is extending a long-running and successful campaign that uses humor to grab attention and market share. The new phase will promote its physician referral program. A big chunk of the effort is online--the hospital has used social media sites and a special microsite to reach out to customers who might use their services.

Patients don't shop for hospitals by visiting their home pages, says Ken Steele, St. Mary's president.

John Luginbill, CEO of The Heavyweights, an Indianapolis ad agency that works with healthcare organizations, says they will have to abandon television for online and other new media campaigns eventually.

"TV the way we know it today is within 60 months of being completely dead," he predicts. Younger audiences, especially, want content on demand. "They don't watch 30-second spots."

We'll check back with Luginbill in five years to see if his prediction came true. In the meantime, I can see at least one good reason not to watch future Super Bowl games: The ads are all online anyway. And since there no longer seem to be any spots that everybody will be talking about at the water cooler the next morning, what does it matter if you wait until Monday to see them?

Gienna Shaw is an editor with HealthLeaders magazine. She can be reached at
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