“Payback Time” cancer campaign mis-step

Here’s the video and some background.

It’s a two minute animation currently showing on British TV, in support of an upcoming Channel 4 cancer research fundraising evening, which will be held on 17th October 2014.

The cause is impeccable and I’d urge people to support it. Furthermore, the animation is well made and quite striking. If it gets circulated widely and discussed and some of this buzz translates into increased donations to cancer research, I’m sure the makers will fairly say “job done”.


[spoiler follows]

After I watched the advert for the first time my feelings were thoroughly mixed. And the predominant ingredient in this mixture, let’s be honest, was a sinking sense of this is all so badly wrong… on so many levels.

It shows a society of anthropomorphised cancer cells being ‘zapped’ by some kind of experimental cancer treatment. There’s a twist, in that the viewer doesn’t know that the walking and talking potato-things are actually supposed to be cancer cells until the very end. We are left with the uncomfortable sense of having momentarily felt sorry for cancer. We feel a little bad about this, and confused… then maybe (I’m presuming this is what those creative types were thinking when they dreamt this up) angry about cancer, slightly guilty, and determined to make amends… By giving lots of money to Cancer Research UK.

The stirring emotional images and music, and surprise turnaround at the end certainly makes for a memorable advert. Maybe this was all they were trying for: it certainly sticks in the mind much better than those schmaltzy soft focus appeals from previous years.

Whether it actually makes us donate more, I’m not so sure, though this isn’t my main bone of contention with the thinking behind this piece.

The problem with this advert is that it’s the latest and possibly most extreme example of  the “fight against cancer” meme. The thing is, individuals never really ‘fight’ cancer. We are diagnosed, we live with it— for increasingly long periods of time— sometimes we die from it, we all try to endure it, and although increasing numbers of us will indeed “beat it” in some sense this happens through varying combinations of adherence to recognised treatment regimes, age, genetic predisposition and other boring stuff like that. Research seems to stubbornly show that neither ‘fighting spirit’, nor indeed any particular personality trait, makes any difference in cancer survival (See Nakaya et al. 2010). Likewise, if we work in cancer research or health care, we go to work and do stuff to patients and cell cultures or molecules which will hopefully improve or extend the lives of people living with cancers, but at no point in the day do we turn up the stirring music volume, fist pump the air, and shout loudly “Take That, Cancer!” And if we have loved ones who are enduring cancer treatments, they are likely to benefit more from steadfast love and practical and emotional support than from all this frenzied war talk.

Well, you might say (and here I’m imaging ‘you’ as another one of those creative types), this is interesting but beside the point. It’s all about making us donate to the cause, not about our attitudes to the disease. We’ll do a separate ad for that, if someone asks us and pays us well enough. Well (I might say back), wouldn’t having a realistic attitude to cancer help us donate, rather than hinder us? And in any case, if you are doing anything in this kind of arena, shouldn’t you be looking beyond the immediate goal of £££/$$$/€€€? Your message needs to fit in with the broader picture of what’s happening to cancer care, it needs to acknowledge that many of the people responding to your advert now will get cancer later in life, having had their expectations shaped by this and similar ‘let’s fight cancer’ messages; how it’s becoming a chronic disease, and how more people are surviving but with long term care needs, and how all this hyped-up fighting talk isn’t particularly applicable or useful in this context.

And— gloves off time— personally, I don’t like having my emotions pulled around by this kind of advert. I resent it. In some crazy, backwards kind of way, it might make me less likely to give money to the cause. While nobody should expect a piece of ‘fun’ like this to accurately depict the reality of cancer research or treatment, there’s nothing even remotely analogous in any of it. It spectacularly misrepresents cancer (no, it’s nothing like an organised society of Mr Potato Heads), what the “war” (as discussed above, there’s no real fighting involved) against “cancer” (no, it’s not a single disease, it’s many, varying from minor inconvenience through to devastatingly unpleasant) actually involves (obviously, there’s no mainstream treatment that involves ‘infecting’ cancer cells with a blue exploding gunk disease— although I believe there are such things as oncolytic viruses— and this is nothing like the way chemotherapy, radiotherapy, surgery, hormone treatments and the vast majority of all other current and proposed cancer treatments actually work).

Of course, no one needs to take the advert’s depiction of an epidemic infecting and destroying a cartoon potato/bean society seriously (only, hold on, it’s cancer… isn’t that serious?). But the timing of its release, alongside a very real and serious outbreak of epidemic Ebola Virus Disease in West Africa is, let’s say, unfortunate. It serves to highlight the wrongheadedness in casually transplanting tropes from the context of one serious health problem (infectious disease) into that of another (cancer).

Am I overthinking all this? Taking it all a bit too seriously? Probably. But no one said that finding and striking the correct tone in health charity fundraising was easy.

Sorry guys, you need to do better next time.

Nakaya N, Bidstrup PE, Saito-Nakaya K, et al. Personality traits and cancer risk and survival based on Finnish and Swedish registry data. Am J Epidemiol. 2010;172(4):377-85.


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