Study: Cancer Center Ads Long on Emotions, Short on Facts

May 30, 2014
Janet Colwell
Janet Colwell

Advertisements for cancer centers often appeal to consumers’ emotions but rarely provide useful information about the benefits, risks or costs of treatment, a recent analysis concluded.

Advertisements for cancer centers often appeal to consumers’ emotions but rarely provide useful information about the benefits, risks, or costs of treatment, a recent analysis concluded.

“We found that cancer therapies were promoted more commonly than supportive or screening services and were often described in vague or general terms,” the authors wrote in the May 27 issue of Annals of Internal Medicine. “Advertisements commonly evoked hope for survival, promoted innovative treatment advances, and used language about fighting cancer while providing relatively limited information about benefits, risks, costs, or insurance coverage of advertised therapies.”

In the study, funded by the National Institutes of Health, researchers reviewed 409 magazine and television advertisements placed by 102 cancer centers during 2012 (online ads were excluded). Only 5% of the ads mentioned coverage or costs and none talked about insurance plans. Patient testimonials tended to focus on survival but only a few included disclaimers and none described the typical results of treatment.

Most of the ads relied on emotional appeals related to survival or potential for cure, the authors reported. Many used phrases with the word “hope” and described cancer as a fight or battle, while others evoked patients’ fears and anxieties about surviving their disease.

The authors noted that prominent centers credentialed by the National Cancer Institute were just as likely as other centers to omit information about treatment risks, benefits and alternatives, and were more likely to use emotional appeals related to survival or potential for cure.

“The findings suggest that emotional appeals coupled with incomplete information are being widely used to promote services, even among the nation’s most prestigious cancer centers,” the authors said.

Most ads attempted to associate a particular brand with feelings of empathy, warmth, and hope, a strategy that has proven more persuasive with consumers than presenting facts, the authors said. Other studies have shown that highly emotional ads are more effective in changing behavior for cancer screening and smoking cessation than ads based on logic.

However, while cancer is an inherently emotional topic, ads that focus exclusively on consumers’ hopes and fears may lead patients to seek out unnecessary or unproven treatments and expose them to avoidable risks and increasing costs, the authors noted. They may also interfere with patient-physician communication.

“Although efforts to explain patients' false hope have traditionally focused on psychological needs or inadequate communication with physicians, advertising testimonials about potential cure may also play a role,” they wrote. “To the extent that such advertisements generate inaccurate expectations of treatment benefit, they may complicate provider–patient discussions about prognosis and appropriate therapeutic options.”