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Advertising Hope

I’m about to sound like an absolute jerk.

But first, watch this commercial:

I’ve seen this spot for the MD Anderson Cancer at least a dozen times recently. And I’ve yet to figure out how it makes the claim that it does.

“This is a fight, it’s a battle…and cancer, you’re going to lose. And we are going to win.”

Those are the words spoken by the supposed patients and doctors in this commercial, before a graphic comes on and crosses out the word “cancer.” So who could possibly take issue with such a noble sentiment?


I’ve spent decades writing advertising copy in virtually every category. And in my business, you learn pretty quickly that you can’t just make any claim you want. This is particularly true when you promise something that can’t be realistically delivered to every person watching a commercial.

When I wrote advertisements for mutual funds, for example, I could never make a promise that an investment would perform in a certain way. Even the blandest statements had to be supported with many lines of disclaimers on the screen.

The government regulates a lot of advertising language, in order to protect consumers from fraudulent or misleading claims. The Federal Trade Commission provides guidelines for advertising in specific categories. For testimonial ads, like this one from MD Anderson, they write: “Testimonials and endorsements can’t be used to make a claim that the advertising itself cannot substantiate.”

The Securities and Exchange Commission is even more restrictive when discussing investment advertising. You’re allowed to talk about past performance, so long as you disclaim the fact that the viewer might have a different experience. But you certainly can’t claim that you will be successful.

Yet in its commercial, MD Anderson essentially declares that very thing. Cancer is going to lose, they tell you. No disclaimers. No, “Your results may vary.” Nothing.

You might think that healthcare is exempt from making over-promissory claims. But you only have to turn on the television and view any pharmaceutical commercial to see that’s not the case. It seems nearly half of every prescription drug commercial is dedicated to telling you the side effects and risks of that drug.

Shouldn’t the cancer industry be held equally responsible?

I’m not against hope. I think the commercial’s intent is very good. But MD Anderson is a business, and needs patients. And I think it’s unfair – to patients and to other cancer-fighting hospitals — to be selling what amounts to a guarantee.

Perhaps I’m more sensitive to this issue because like so many others, I’ve lost dear friends and loved ones to cancer. Most recently, another advertising copywriter I know lost his long, brave battle. When this spot airs, I can’t help but wonder what his family thinks of it. Maybe they are buoyed by the positive spirit of the people on the screen.

Or maybe they know that there are no guarantees in life. And there certainly shouldn’t be in commercials for cancer treatment.

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