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Cancer Center Advertising: Investigation of Truth Versus Emotional Appeal

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Cancer Patient Undergoing Treatment

When is it a bad idea to give someone with a serious disease hope? When you’re highlighting an atypical case so that it’s false hope, says the group Truth in Advertising (TINA.org).

It’s talking about commercials for cancer treatment centers that use testimonials from patients who recovered, even though the chances of survival with certain kinds of cancers may be slim.

Consumer-focused advertising spending for US cancer centers has grown enormously in recent years, increasing “three fold” between 2005 and 2014. Major cancer treatment centers, like MD Anderson, Memorial Sloan Kettering, and Dana-Farber, now advertise to potential customers. 

Are these ads informative and helpful, or are they exploitative and inaccurate? We’re investigating. 

A study at the US National Library of Medicine at the National Institutes of Health says, “Clinical advertisements by cancer centers frequently promote cancer therapy using emotional appeals that evoke hope and fear while rarely providing information about risks, benefits, or costs.”

And an editorial at oncolink.com is even harsher: “It’s not just emotion driving decisions but fear in particular and cancer patients have that in spades. These ads can tap into our fears that we may die or suffer horrible side effects or spend endless days in the hospital without the use of that gizmo or the latest cancer fighting drug that costs more than your house and may extend your life by a month.”

An experienced medical dosimetrist who claims to work at “a community-based hospital radiation therapy clinic” made a lucid comment to this editorial. “Our equipment is very good and we have very good staff here. My issue is that the competitor in our Metro area advertises heavily and has a lot of referring med oncologists send them patients even though it causes hardship for the families to have to transport patient 40-100 miles instead of using our facility…” She notes that a person who is very sick “should not have to drive or be driven so far when the EXACT SAME TREATMENT is available close to their home.”

Patient testimonials are effective in ads, but their stories may not be typical. An nbcnews.com article cited the testimonial of a patient called Carl at the Memorial Sloan Kettering website. Carl expresses his gratitude for the medical team that treated his pancreatic cancer in 2009. But, the article notes, “the five-year survival rate for someone with pancreatic cancer is only 8.5 percent, a fact not mentioned in the emotional video.”

Ads sometimes imply that choosing the right cancer center can make the difference between health and death. This may be true. As one writer says, in choosing a cancer treatment center, “[t]here are many things to consider. Advertising is not one of them.” But a fearful, highly-stressed person with an often fatal disease can easily be swayed by hype.

If you or a loved one have or have had cancer and have been given false hope by advertising that doesn’t accurately portray the facts, survival chances, costs, or other important factors, we’d like to hear from you. Fill out the form on this page and let us know what your experience was.

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