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The painful side of positive health care marketing

Sam Harnett, Kaiser Health News on

Published in Health & Fitness

"I didn't say 'yes' to cancer," Wallace said. "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."

Karuna Jaggar is executive director of Breast Cancer Action. She said health care providers are following in the footsteps of other companies.

"It's the basics of marketing," Jaggar said. "In order to sell products or services, you have to sell hope."

She said health care advertisers are adopting the kind of optimistic messaging that really began in force with the pink ribbons and rosy depictions of breast cancer.

"Thirty years ago, breast cancer was the poster child of positive thinking," Jaggar said. " 'Look good, feel better, don't let breast cancer get you down. Fight strong and be cheerful while you do it.' "

Back then, health care providers marketed to physicians more than consumers. The ads were drier, more factual, said Guy David, an economist and professor of health care management at the University of Pennsylvania.

"When the ads are more consumer-facing as opposed to professional-facing, the content tends to be more passionate," David said.

The hospital ads Wallace objects to tug at emotions, just like other advertising that is trying to win over consumers. With increasing health care costs and choices, patients are shopping around for care. These days hospitals have to sell themselves, said Tim Calkins, a professor of marketing at Northwestern University.

"Right now in health care, if you don't have some leverage, if you don't have a brand people care about, if you don't have a reason for people to pick you over competitors -- well, then you are in a really tough spot," he said.

Hospitals are spending more than ever on advertising, he said, and, as with other products, that advertising is filled with lots of promises. He noted that you don't see the same promises in the pharmaceutical industry. Their ads are regulated by the Food and Drug Administration, which is why they have to list side effects and show scientific backing for their claims.

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