When it Comes to Bad Ads, Nothing Compares to CMS Campaign

Gienna Shaw, for HealthLeaders Media, May 28, 2008

I was going to write this week's column about Bad Ads. You know what I mean: The ones that make you cringe and wonder if the company that sent them to you actually wants your business. Or if the person in charge of the campaign is getting ready to quit their marketing job to pursue their business of knitting cat sweaters and dog booties full-time. Lucky for me, as I was noodling this idea, the CMS ad in the Boston Globe, ranking our local hospitals, hit my desk.

Wow. That is one Bad Ad.

Seriously, have you seen this thing? About the only positive statement I can think to make about it is that it's big. And it's not even a full page.

In case you haven't seen it, here's a summary:

  • There's a non-enticing headline: "Compare the Quality of Your Local Hospitals."
  • There's a non-compelling call-to-action: "Visit www.hospitalcompare.com."
  • There's a boring tease for the call-to-action: "Here is a sample of what you'll see."
  • Then there's the dense look and feel of the ad: White letters on a black background and a hard-to read chart taking up most of the space.
  • There's also a tiny testimonial photo of 72-year-old Daisy, squished down beneath the chart, along with Daisy's generic quote: "The more information I have to make a choice, the better."

The chart is the worst part—which is just a little ironic since its message is that consumers can find information about the quality of their local hospitals on CMS' Hospital Compare Web site.

The hospitals are listed in alphabetical order on the left, leaving the reader with two bar charts of unsorted statistical data on the right. It's difficult to tell which hospitals are doing well and which ones aren't doing so well in the two areas covered in the ad.

In other words, they've made it hard to compare the hospitals.

Which brings me to my next critique. CMS chose to publicize results from two HCAHPS survey questions. One was the percentage of people who always received help when they wanted it. That gives a good snapshot, I think, of the patient satisfaction aspect of the survey. It's easy for the audience to understand, the information is important and relevant to most people (who, after all, like to receive help when they're in the hospital). And the scores, in Massachusetts anyway, are low enough to be dramatic but not so low as to cause alarm.

The second data set shows the percentage of people who received antibiotics one hour prior to surgery.

Do you think the average person understands whether or not all patients need antibiotics one hour before surgery? They might have a vague idea that it's a good thing to get antibiotics before surgery. But the statistics don't explain whether the 30% who did not get the antibiotics one hour before surgery at Beth Israel Deaconess Hospital in Newton, MA, for example, really needed them.

Perhaps they got their antibiotics 55 minutes before surgery. Or an hour and 20 minutes before surgery. And does that make any difference?

There is an explanation way down at the bottom of the ad, beneath the picture of Daisy. It does say that getting an antibiotic "at the right time" before surgery reduces your risk of infection. That's pretty vague. I'm guessing a lot of people won't really get it.

Meanwhile, maybe I'm being too hard on CMS. At least they're doing something to get the information out there, to engage the patient/consumer, to get people talking about healthcare quality.

Can you say the same?

Here's a sample ad (though this one is prettier than the one in my local paper).

Editor's Note: Don't forget that the deadline to enter your own brilliant ads in the HealthLeaders Media Marketing Awards is Friday, May 30.

Gienna Shaw is an editor with HealthLeaders magazine. She can be reached at gshaw@healthleadersmedia.com.

Note: You can sign up to receive HealthLeaders Media Marketing, a free weekly e-newsletter that will guide you through the complex and constantly-changing field of healthcare marketing.

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