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NHS Prostate Cancer Research

Cracking Stuff: Why the Prostate Cancer UK ‘walnut’ ad is health advertising at its finest

By Andrew Boulton

January 4, 2013 | 4 min read

On the face of things, staying alive should probably be the easiest sell in advertising. Convincing someone that living is better than, say, not living should be a doddle. Especially when compared to, for example, persuading an audience that the Pepsi Max ‘dudes’ aren’t a bunch of thoroughly loathsome poo-poo heads (or another word, you decide).

But health and safety campaigns are a surprisingly mixed bunch. Some thoroughly nail the ‘three Ps’ of that particular advertising genre – Powerful, Poignant, Persuasive.

Leo Burnett’s ‘So, what’s it going to be?’ drink driving campaign (featuring the barman who assumes various characters) is original, striking and very memorable. It must be having a significant impact as it recently reappeared on our screens as part of the annual Christmas drink driving awareness push.

Yet some adverts can find themselves straying into the unwelcome territory of heavy handedness. Or, to the other extreme of not making a compelling enough argument to convey the urgency of the issue.

Anti smoking campaigns are a classic example of inconsistent execution and impact. The notorious ‘fish-hook’ Department of Health campaign was visually powerful to the point of prompting some complaint and ultimately being banned.

Others such as the NHS ‘Smoke Free’ campaign featuring people stranded on top of giant cigarettes as a metaphor for their struggle to quit was viewed by some to be a little ‘soft’.

Perhaps then, like using creepy puppets to convince an audience that is not a company forged in the fires of Mount Doom, health awareness ads are not quite as easy to nail as we first thought.

But then something comes along to eat away that doubt faster than a 4000% interest rate on a loan can eat away all your worldly possessions and sense of self worth.

‘The Sledgehammer Fund’ is the current Prostate Cancer UK TV spot starring Bill Bailey and it is as charming and thoughtful an advert as I have seen in a long time.

In this blog I have talked before of how damaging it can be to choose the wrong celebrity to front your campaign. Personally, Marco Pierre White is a man I would happily lock inside a wheelie full of wasps and then feed to a Killer Whale, so no, I will probably not be purchasing Knorr stockpots.

But Bailey is a perfect choice for that particular campaign. Funny, intelligent and highly relatable for the men being targeted, his turn in the ad is warm, humorous and compelling.

And not only did they get the face right, they got the words very right too, and probably even more importantly, the tone.

I’ve often found there to be a nervousness about the use of humour in marketing that is ultimately related to something potentially fatal. My argument (often unsuccessful) has always been that humorous ads are potentially the most engaging, with a huge propensity to go viral.

When the message you are trying to convey is literally a matter of life and death then surely it is not time to be too timid to implement the most effective tools at your disposal.

Prostate Cancer UK, to their enormous credit, understand this perfectly well. The ‘Sledgehammer’ ad incorporates the same kind of tongue-in-cheek humour as their previous ‘Give a Few Bob’ advert, featuring a posthumous star turn from Bob Monkhouse, who himself died of prostate cancer

In both cases the humour is not flippant nor the sentiment disingenuous. Both are merely a means of delivering a sensitive and serious message in a way that will connect with the audience.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got three wheelie bins, 700 wasps and three Pepsi Max ‘dudes’ to track down.


Andrew Boulton is a copywriter at the Together Agency. It would be most unfair to call him a poo-poo head.

NHS Prostate Cancer Research

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