Blood and guts: why advertising needs to get real now health is center stage

With health and wellbeing remaining front of mind for people around the world, global chief strategy officer at VMLY&Rx, Nichole Davies says it's important that health campaigns do not shy away from the ugly truth.

The awards season is over. But does anyone remember last year when a commercial about postnatal recovery was banned from appearing during the Oscars ceremony because broadcasters felt it was a bit too honest?

The story of ‘Frida Mom’ – showing the blood and pain of recovery from childbirth – was considered too graphic for the sensibilities of a primetime TV audience. Award-winning authenticity, it seems, is the preserve of Hollywood’s finest.

We’ve long known that authenticity is the secret sauce of great campaigns, but often we’re conflicted; we want our advertising to feel real, we just don’t want it to feel too real.

It’s a tightrope we routinely walk-in health, where reality can be painful. When we overbalance we stifle creativity and our messages struggle to land. It’s a risk we can no longer afford: health is too important.

If the Covid-19 pandemic has taught us anything, it’s that communications matter: when we get it wrong, our whole world can collapse.

Right now, all eyes are on health. The virus is center stage, but there’s a tidal wave of undiagnosed disease rolling in behind it. If we’re to reduce the impact of one health emergency crashing into another, impactful communications are key.

It’s an incredible moment for our sector – an opportunity for creatives to really make a difference. However, we’ll only win if our work is truthful. That means confronting ‘blood and guts’ issues head-on.

There’s little doubt that some health campaigns opt for the safe and saccharine. They follow a familiar formula – an uplifting slogan, a rainbow of hope – and invariably sign off with a burst of life; survivors power-walking through cornfields or sipping champagne on the sand.

There’s a good reason why health campaigns generally choose the happy ending: there’s power in positivity. But sometimes ‘chocolate box’ signatures are a world apart from the reality of treatment and disease. This can alienate people, making them feel like it’s not their story.

Health is human and it’s not always pretty. If we want our communications to have impact, they should be grounded in reality, not cliché. For the woman recovering from childbirth, that first pain-free moment a product gives them is unlikely to be spent on the beach. It’s disingenuous if our advertising puts them there.

Great health creative doesn’t need to be grueling or graphic, but it does need to connect. It needs to say: “I see you. I hear you. And I understand what you’re going through. You’re not alone.”

This principle applies to advertising across all sectors – because there’s no place for stereotypes anywhere.

In women’s health, powerful examples of raw advertising are emerging that grapple taboos unapologetically. ‘Wombstories’ explores unspoken truths about wombs; showing the emotional struggles of women getting their first periods, going through the menopause, suffering miscarriages or struggling to conceive. Previous Bodyform campaigns celebrated vulvas and normalized depictions of real menstrual blood. ‘Love Hate Relationship’, for Breast Cancer Now, colourfully charts the emotional journey women go on with their breasts – from the first bra to the latest mammogram.

The bravery is worth it. Health isn’t about rainbows and unicorns – it’s about human stories, warts and all. We’ll only tell them properly if they connect to a relatable truth.

Consumer advertising has shown the allure of authenticity, but – with Covid as a catalyst – health is revealing how community engagement can elevate that authenticity to ensure creative speaks honestly to diverse needs. The ‘Give Hope’ campaign – part of the UK’s vaccine acceptance efforts – is a great example of how local advocacy and direct interaction can drive comms that connect.

The campaign typifies a push in healthcare for greater intimacy with our audiences – an approach that’s equally relevant to consumer advertising. Health campaigns show that if we want our work to connect and captivate, we need to:

Because sometimes blood and guts is exactly what we need.

Nichole Davies is global chief strategy officer at VMLY&Rx.