The ads, which began appearing in major markets late last month, are on behalf of a nonprofit organization called the Lung Cancer Alliance. The campaign is being created by the Laughlin Constable agency.
The campaign carries the theme “No one deserves to die,” which is meant to address what the organization describes as the pervasive demonizing of those suffering with lung cancer because of widespread attitudes that they may have brought it on themselves by smoking.
“Many people believe that if you have lung cancer you did something to deserve it,” declares the home page of a Web site that is the centerpiece of the campaign, noonedeservestodie.org.
“Lung cancer doesn’t discriminate and neither should you,” the home page says. “Help put an end to the stigma and the disease.”
All that sounds fine. Where is the provocation?
The campaign tries to prove that “No one deserves to die” with a teaser phase that presents other groups in society and then seemingly asserts that they “deserve to die.” The groups include cat lovers, “the smug,” hipsters, “crazy old aunts,” people with tattoos and “the genetically privileged.”
Those statements, of course, raise eyebrows sky-high and put some who read them in an agitated state. The ads then elaborate — in the second phase of the campaign, known as the “reveal” — by adding “if they have lung cancer” at the end of each phrase and adding the logo of the Lung Cancer Alliance.
For instance, the headline on the ad that says “Cat lovers deserve to die” is re-presented as “Cat lovers deserve to die if they have lung cancer.”
That is followed by this explanatory text: “Many people believe that if you have lung cancer you did something to deserve it. It sounds absurd, but it’s true.”
“Lung cancer doesn’t discriminate and neither should you,” the text concludes. “Help put an end to the stigma and the disease at noonedeservestodie.org.”
A commercial being shown in movie theaters takes a similar tack. It begins with a woman making outfits for numerous cats and the words “Cat lovers deserve to die” appear on screen. Then the words “if they have lung cancer” are added.
“Lung cancer doesn’t discriminate,” an announcer says. “Neither should you.” The logo of the Lung Cancer Alliance then appears.
The campaign, with a budget estimated at $1 million, includes, in addition to the Web site, the ads and the commercial, social media like Facebook.
The campaign is an example of what has become to be known as shock-vertising — ads that go out of their way to be contentious so they are noticed amid the cacophony and clutter of the everyday marketing landscape.
Shock-vertising is a variation on content in the popular culture that seeks to stimulate a conversation by seeming to go too far. An example is the song “Short People” by Randy Newman, which sought to make a point about discrimination by apparently proclaiming that “Short people got no reason to live.”
Shock-vertising is especially common among organizations that want to amplify the bang they get for the (limited) buck they have to spend on public service campaigns. That certainly describes what the Lung Cancer Alliance is doing.
The danger with shock-vertising is that it fails to walk the fine line between getting noticed and getting noticed for the wrong reasons — for instance, alienating and annoying the public to the point where a campaign becomes so counterproductive that it has to be changed or even discontinued.
Case in point, a reader who was unaware that a reporter was planning to write about the Lung Cancer Alliance campaign sent him an e-mail last week about her encounters with a couple of the posters.
The reader writes that when she saw the poster carrying the headline “Tattooed people deserve to die,” affixed to a phone kiosk outside a Starbucks on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, she tore it down “and threw it in the trash, where it deserved to be.”
A couple of days later, she says, she saw in the same spot the follow-up poster, which read, “Tattooed people deserve to die if they have lung cancer.”
That one, too, “went straight to the trash,” she writes, because only “people such as Hitler, Stalin and bin Laden” are “deserving to die.”
“Perhaps if the people who created and approved these ads could insert their own names in place of ‘tattooed,’ they could see how their concept resonates,” the reader concludes — missing, unfortunately, the point of the ads.
The reaction to the campaign so far has run “80/20 supporters versus those who may find it offensive,” says Laurie Fenton Ambrose, president and chief executive at the Lung Cancer Alliance in Washington.
That is fine, she adds, because “we had to do something bold, brave, provocative and edgy, too,” to “shake both the consciousness and subconscious” of the public and generate “more compassion and support” for those with lung cancer.
“The stigma is literally the biggest obstacle in the way of achieving any progress in terms of lung cancer’s survivability,” Ms. Fenton Ambrose says. “Until we can get beyond that, we will never see a change.”
“This isn’t a campaign about smoking,” she adds. “This is a campaign about the stigma and the harm it does to lung cancer patients, whether or not they’ve smoked.”
Smoking “is a risk factor” for lung cancer, Ms. Fenton Ambrose acknowledges, but so, too, is it a risk factor for heart attacks and strokes.
“But you’ve never heard anyone say, ‘You smoked, didn’t you?’ to someone who’s had a heart attack or stroke,” she adds.
The organization’s approach until now has been “softer,” Ms. Fenton Ambrose says, in the vein of “we need hope, we need love.”
“It does not work for a disease,” she adds, because some people without lung cancer wonder what those with it “did to deserve” having the disease.
“It’s absurd to think people deserve to die,” Ms. Fenton Ambrose says, and the goal of the campaign is for “the absurdity” to “capture the attention” of the public.
“This is a disease that is so tragic and massive in its impact,” she adds, that such an unconventional approach to a campaign is warranted.
The organization and Laughlin Constable were brought together through Diane Rothschild, a longtime creative executive on Madison Avenue who was elected to the board of the Lung Cancer Alliance in 2002, after she learned she had lung cancer. She died of the disease five years later, at age 63.
Through Ms. Rothschild, the organization came to know Michael Jeary, who worked with her at the New York agency Della Femina Rothschild Jeary Partners. Mr. Jeary opened his own agency, Partners Jeary, in 2006, and left in 2009 to open a New York office for Laughlin Constable, which is based in Milwaukee and also has an office in Chicago.
“What we’re doing is controversial,” Mr. Jeary, president of the New York office, writes in an e-mail. “We know it, and we’re bracing for it.”
“But we also know that there was a time that H.I.V./AIDS needed people to be brave, when there was actually a stigma to even express compassion for those who had contracted the disease,” he writes. “Frankly, the same type of situation exists with lung cancer.”
The Milwaukee, Chicago and New York outposts of Laughlin Constable collaborated on the Lung Cancer Alliance campaign.
The campaign was born from “a very methodical process with the client,” says Denise Kohnke, senior vice president for strategy at Laughlin Constable, who is based in Milwaukee and oversees strategy for the entire agency.
“We knew this would be polarizing,” Ms. Kohnke says, “and some people would not like it.”
The agency, along with the Lung Cancer Alliance, is closely monitoring the reaction to the campaign, she adds, and both are happy that the positive responses have so far significantly outweighed the negative.
The campaign was “designed to challenge people’s prejudices,” Ms. Kohnke says, and it has “struck a nerve.”
“We do ask people to look within their own value systems,” she adds, and that can be “very personal.”
Among the markets in which the campaign is appearing are Atlanta, Boston, Chicago, Dallas, New Orleans, New York, Seattle and Washington.
As for the future of the campaign, it “could have legs in a number of ways,” Ms. Fenton Ambrose says, including an expansion to other cities.
The organization has already received comments from Toronto, she says, saying, ‘We want to see it up here.’”
Ms. Kohnke says a next phase could also have a strong “social component,” listing examples like asking people on Facebook to change their profile pictures to add “No one deserves to die.”
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