Whose cancer story is MD Anderson really telling?


The MD Anderson 2015 Cancer advertising campaign is a take-no-prisoners, in-your-face declaration that cancer is on the run and they’re hell bent to “make cancer history.” The Ads reprise a similar Cancer Research UK “Cancer, we’re Coming to Get You” UK campaign (2013) and UK Race for Life (2015) Ad.

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In the Anderson ads we’re presented with people like us telling us what cancer has taken, or tried to take from them; their hair, their husbands, their grandmothers, their fathers and… even them.

The power of the Ads is the performance.

The menacing gaze of a woman,

                   “Cancer, did you really think we’d do nothing.”

The language of warfare,

        “Did you think you’d take our mothers, our loves, the left hand for the right.           Well hell hath no fury like a woman in pink. And we’ll not lie down, not without a fight.”  

The taunt of the confident,  

    “I laugh at your stupid face”

The zeal of religion met by the stronger-than-blood zeal of buddies in the trenches.  

    “You mess with her [child], you mess with all of us.”

The narrative or frame of these Ads is that we’ve arrived at a time when patients now control what’s going to happen to them and their cancer.

Humans process much information by using powerful cognitive scripts or narratives Lakoff, and we often misinterpret or even dismiss messages that do not match a mental schema we have.

So saying that, if your mental script cancer is “something I will fight with every inch of my being…” the Anderson Ads likely resonate with you, support and reinforce you and your thinking – empowering.

But if you have a very different mental script for cancer ( insert any health condition you want here) – any many do –  these ads  can yield –  “I don’t have the strength and nobility of these people in the ads.” “I am lacking, I am flawed, not worthy of healing because I’m not facing this as the noble warrior.”

And while I too have been known to answer rallying cries and even recite an occasional self-empowerment mantra, shouldn’t these Ads come with a warning label?



19 replies
  1. Thartney
    Thartney says:

    Although i think these adds to be extremely effective when it comes to empowering cancer patients along with the general public i do see how these advertisements can be seen in a different light by someone facing a similar health issue. Some will watch this and it will be exactly what they need in order to get of the couch and save their own lives while for others this add will pouch them further into the grieving stage of their diagnosis. I also believe that the adds can negatively affect people who have cancer. A person who can no longer take care of their children, eat a normal diet, is taking 12 pills a day may watch these adds and think “why am i not sting enough?” “Could i have prevented my current situation if I fought harder?” Not everyone who has cancer wakes up out of bed with a fighters attitude like this add implies. Cancer is lonely. Cancer is scary. Cancer is standing in the shower alone crying not knowing if you will see your child graduate high school. Although i do support this add and think it is effective, it only highlights one side of cancer. I do not think a warning label is necessary. These adds are positive and meaningful.

  2. Laura Hirschfield
    Laura Hirschfield says:

    It is difficult for me to answer this question because I have never dealt with a life-threatening health condition. I would like to think of myself as a strong, empowered and determined woman, but I have been known to take difficult situations very heavily. I think the MD Anderson Ads are correct in their idea of empowering people to stay strong and face cancer head-on, but I can see where some people may be intimidated by these powerful messages and feel less than capable of maintaining a fierce and powerful demeanor when considering the disease that they have. No one handles grave situations in the same way. For some, this mantra of being part of a team, sticking together, fighting the villain, and not going out without a fight can be extremely beneficial, but for others it may be too much to handle whilst going through one of the most difficult times of their lives.

  3. Mikayla H
    Mikayla H says:

    Hey Anna,

    I see you’re point about how it doesn’t seem like a lot of money is trickling down to the individuals. However, coming from a clinical research perspective, I can see why the money ends up other places. There are so many institutions looking for a “cure” to all the types of cancer known to man, and this work its extremely challenging and at times hopeless. These researchers would not be making any income if we did not financially support them, since very few can actually find optimistic results. We need all of these researchers to have a strong force of people doing this exploratory research, this way we will hopefully cure the disease quicker. It kind of comes down to epidemiology (funding things for the greater population) verses public health (funding organizations like where your mom worked), and someone has to make a call as to who gets money since it is finite. How can we decide if we should help those who have the disease now, or help those for future generations? Should we help the people who are suffering and deal with the future cases when they get there? Wouldn’t it be great if we could cure the disease? This problem creates many questions, none of which have a clear answer.

  4. Norma Reza Santos
    Norma Reza Santos says:

    Hola Everyone:
    I would like to comment on the advertisement called “Joint The Pink Army.”
    First, we (as a nation) are on the wrong path; and second the right direction is now clear.
    Since the major pharmaceutical companies began to take charge of medical research and medical treatment during the 1900’s; modern medicine has become prescription focused. Solutions to major health challenges such as cancers are expected to come from drug based research using small sample trials. The FDA is pressured to approve from the powerful lobbyist leaning on Congress. There are enormous economic benefits and prestige to be gained from who ever discovers the “Miracle Cure.”
    So, we as helpless and frightened citizens are encouraged to just keep giving to research until a cure is found. “Sign up and we will be cancer free sooner,” stays the persuasive voice behind the dramatic visuals in the advertisement. It is a race for life! But it is also a very big business: Why not present it as a war?
    We the people rally to fight wars: The war on crime, the war on drugs, the war on poverty so why not a “Pink Army.” Does anyone stop to think that the war approach has not worked? Just where does the money go to fight this war that is funded by the many non-profits we all support?
    In 2002 the Avon Breast Cancer 3 day walk from Bear Mountain into NYC raised 15 million dollars. Over 9 million (more than half) went to the promotion and event company from California that coordinated the event. All man-power needed to stage it were “Volunteer.”
    I believe we are on the wrong path.
    Dr. Ann Wigmore: a naturopathic doctor, was the acknowledged research in curing cancers through plant based nutrition. Founder of The alternative medicine movement and raw foods diet. She was at or near the beginning of many creditable research scientists, and doctors who have published peer reviewed work on nutrition base cures for many diseases including cancers. Unfortunately, there has been less and less creditable research using nutrition, because the primary funding for research comes from the drug industry. When certain foods are suggested to promote cancer prevention and reversal, the pharmaceutical and food industries go into “attack (war)” mode to disclaim the work. They fund studies that use products they have produced which can be marketed for tremendous profits.
    The right path, I believed is to focus on nutrition: education, research, advertising and promotion, and action. What we buy and eat each day is how we are voting for change-or status quo-or more junk in our food choices. We can choose good nutrition and boycott bad. If there is a war, it should be waged against the lack of corporate and government integrity. There was a t-shirt from the 1970’s that said “Food for people, not for profit” we are still fighting that battle.
    Today’s t-shirt should read “keep questioning, keep expecting better.” from Nancy’s Point blog comment.

    References: If you are interested in info on nutrition and plant based cures for illnesses, you may want to start with the following resources:

    . The China Study: The Most Comprehensive Study of Nutrition Ever Conducted And the Startling Implications for Diet, Weight Loss, And Long-term Health by Thomas Campbell and T. Colin Campbell, 2004.

    . Forks Over Knives Documentary film by Lee Fulkerson, 2011.

    . Dr. Ann Wigmore:

    . The Cancer Prevention Diet:Michio Kushi’s Macrobiotic Blueprint for the Prevention and Relief of Disease book by Michio Kushi , December 15, 1994.

    Be assure that the opinion begin posted is mine (based on reliable research)

  5. Sandrine Konan
    Sandrine Konan says:

    I think I just like the ad because of the different strategies used. It is very powerful and few people who are actually going through cancer may be persuade that there is hope and they are not alone in the fight. it is good to bring people together but in case of cancer, there is a need to address the real problem and not give patients a piece of entertainment.
    The problem is how many of people who have cancer will actually believe there is hope? There is no evidence in this ad that will make it more than an advertisement. The gaze of the woman and the determination, the color pink are great strategies but the reality Is that there is more to do concerning the care that patients with cancer get. I am sure many of them do not even believe in those ads any more for them it is just like entertainment that give them a false hope.
    I was reading an article about this woman who discovered that she got breast cancer at 35 years old and she believes that mammography is not that effective and beside, this is a way to receive fund.
    As I said the ad is powerful, it may get few people but most of us know that there is more to do than an ad and those ads are probably a way to make money and let’s hope that the money will be used for the sake of the patients. if you think like me, this ad is not so efficient.

  6. MariluzG
    MariluzG says:

    This article questions how this particular ad can have an effect on those who are going through or been through breast cancer personally. A person who is currently going through this cancer can see this ad as being deceiving and hurtful. These female go through agonizing pain; not only physically, losing hair and breasts, but mentally. Breast on a female was always important because its what we use to feed our newborns. They may also go through the pain of feeling powerless and less of a woman.

    This ad was made to capture the attention of viewers, in order to gather more resources to help find treatments for women who have to deal with this cancer. Being able to be assertive and punctual is what made this ad so popular. Which in my opinion, isn’t bad if it’s for a good cause.

  7. Sangjun
    Sangjun says:

    I think This ad is great because it encourages people who have cancer to fight cancer together. Usually, if people are diagnosed with cancer in hospital, they will be devastated instead of fight against cancer. As cancer is still one of the fatal diseases in the world, a lot of people die of cancer. However, people can overcome this disease as they fight against it. This ad show that they are never alone that are accompanied with a strong will.

  8. Smiley (Ola)
    Smiley (Ola) says:

    If this ad comes with a warning I believe it would capture more viewer’s attention. Viewers would be curious to see what breast cancer ad comes with a warning, and more people would tune in to watch it. Ads that come with warnings typically have graphic images. So seeing an ad without graphic images but comes a warning would yield more attention.

  9. Smiley (Ola)
    Smiley (Ola) says:

    This ad resonates with me because of its tone which is sort of aggressive but gets the point- beating breast cancer. Cancer is an aggressive illness, so referring to it has a “battle” is fine with me. I honestly feel like the women in this ad are trying to empower other women that they are not in the fight alone and they shall not let cancer win, they would do anything in their means to beat this battle. When you are ill one needs to have this type of mentality because it gives them hope to hold on to. That one day this will all end, they would win the battle. One has to be strong minded when battling with illness like cancer that can take a toll on someone’s life and emotion, but when you have the support and see people fighting for the same cause you get inspired and motivated. I think MD Anderson did a fantastic job with this ad, it brings a feisty outlook to the breast cancer fight. GO PINK!

  10. Sukramlis
    Sukramlis says:

    This ad instantly captured my attention, the sound track, the way the women dress and everything else in the ad were very inspirational. It’s portraying a message to never give up if you have cancer. In my opinion this ad is basically encouraging and giving hope to women who have cancer. I gathered from this ad that those women will start a battle with cancer if that’s what it takes , and never let cancer win and take control of their lives.

  11. Nancy's Point
    Nancy's Point says:

    Hello everyone,

    It’s funny, I was just mentioning these ads to my husband the other night as I find them quite annoying. I don’t like them, or rather their tone, for the exact reasons stated in this blog posting. Thank you, Marcia, for sharing that post of mine about attitude. A more recent one that I think is very pertinent to this discussion is this one:


    I found the Mayo Clinic Health Systems billboard ad to be highly offensive and so did many others. With the support of others via social media, ultimately the sign was revised.

    I realize medical facilities want to portray their institutions as great places to get treatment, it’s all about marketing, but I do think sometimes lines are crossed that should not be, as was the case with the Mayo billboard. And the MD Anderson ads, well… personally, I think they can do a whole lot better. And I deplore the war metaphors. I have lots of posts on my blog about cancer language/traps.

    Thank you for this discussion, everyone. Keep questioning. Keep expecting better.


    • OptimusPrime
      OptimusPrime says:

      Nancy & Dr. Z. both bring up some interesting points I haven’t thought about:

      When amassing such a large and very variable target audience, how could we forget the other end of the spectrum? I remember what Chris said during our last lecture (after our midterm, sigh) and it stuck with me: public health promotions are almost always not successful, very few are, and many need to be re-worked, re-edited, and redirected. I agree, Nancy, this advertisement is somewhat of a violent attack against a cancerous entity that could come at any time, and happen to anyone. And maybe that’s really the horrific, terrifying thing about it – is that it takes no prisoners.

      In conclusion, although I can understand the sense of community, and unity that others have suggested in previous posts – I agree with Dr. Z and Nancy that you can NOT forget the MOST vulnerable. And, obviously, this marketing campaign forgets about the many people who are affected by this health condition who feel very OPPOSITE of this campaign. Possibly further plummeting themselves into senses of hopelessness, despair, and unworthiness.

  12. Yomaha Gordon
    Yomaha Gordon says:

    I personally like these ads. Not only do they grab my attention, they are also sending positive and encouraging messages to women battling cancer. I like this idea of depicting women as warriors because as a society, the best thing we can do for women (or anyone) battling cancer (besides finding a cure) is to empower them to keep fighting, remind them to be always hopeful and that they have the strength to overcome .

  13. Mark Hochhauser
    Mark Hochhauser says:

    Take a look at MD Anderson’s booklet “Clinical Trials at MD Anderson. Is a clinical trial the right treatment choice for you.”

    The title implies that research is just another form of treatment, a perspective that creates problems for bioethicists and researchers who are concerned about “therapeutic misconceptions” that may mislead prospective subjects. Clinical trial research and medical treatment are not the same.

    Plus, the booklet plays down the risks in clinical trials and does not describe who’s financially responsible if subjects experience research-related injuries. Oncology consent forms typically state that subjects injured in clinical trials will be treated, and their insurance company will be billed for those injury related treatment costs. But if the insurance company refuses to pay, subjects will have to pay for their own research related injury costs.

    Clinical trial participants can be called participants, volunteers or human subjects to distinguish them from patients, but Anderson further blurs that important distinction.

    Perhaps you can find a clinical trial consent form from MD Anderson that your students could analyze.

  14. Mark Hochhauser
    Mark Hochhauser says:

    Although my mother lived to almost 94, she had four cancer diagnoses in her life. Her oncologist called me about her fourth diagnosis, which was liver cancer–and it was spreading. He said there was nothing else that he could do, especially given her age and other health problems. I believe that my mother had learned to co-exist with cancer in her body for almost 50 years, and I’m happy that she never saw these ads.

  15. Marcia Zorn
    Marcia Zorn says:

    I think that no warning is needed. Patients know that cancer may “win”. Such ads, like those at http://www2.mdanderson.org/cancerwise/2012/04/attitude-of-gratitude-two-patients-reflect-on-their-cancer-journeys.html , use personal testimonials to encourage the attitude that a fight (and one preferably at M.D. Anderson) is the way to survive. “Choosing Life” means fighting. Cancer patients and their families probably see this as a hopeful alternative to a passive acceptance of death.

    A blog posting I think discusses this issue well is at http://nancyspoint.com/having-an-attitude-about-attitude/ . But my response is that for some cancer patients, this defiant attitude of is how they chose to live until they die.

    • ChrisZ
      ChrisZ says:

      Thank you for sharing Nancy’sPoint Blog. http://nancyspoint.com
      She does certainly speak to part of what causes me to question the unintended (?) consequences of the Anderson Ads.

      And reading her did help be crystallize what I find a bit pernicious about the Ads.As you well know, in the field of health literacy, we’re so intent on “Does the patient/consumer comprehend the meaning and the message? And we know that part of being health literate is being able to question the evidence. How effective is X offered product/treatment? Who most has benefited from X treatment?

      We have spent many years working to help patients and consumers make more “informed decisions”about treatments.

      Are we satisfied, in the face of these Ads, to stand back – let that question lie – and let marketers hawk hope the way they do soap?

      I know that’s a loaded question – but I’d be less agitated if MD Anderson coupled with these Ads with others speaking to what innovations in treatment they offer and where is the evidence that they’re working.

    • Jeanine Draut
      Jeanine Draut says:

      We have more than two choices (fight with every bit of fire power that MD Andersen vs. passively accept death). As Mark Hochauser describes, real life with cancer is a bit more gray. It seems harsh to me that if a person doesn’t decide to do every possible intervention that we should judge them as passive or weak or giving in. That is the danger of these ads.

  16. Isabella Odonkor
    Isabella Odonkor says:

    This is an excellent point Chris! We talked about something similar in my heath communication theory class last semester. Specifically, it was encouraging men to get a colonoscopy. The ad said something along the lines of “real men get colonoscopies”. Although I am sure the designers of this ad meant for the ad wording to inspire and combat the emasculating associations that are paired with getting colonoscopies, my class and I thought this “real men” catch phrase could be seen as intimidating and a bit shameful. Some men may genuinely not feel comfortable with the procedure and the ad telling them that they are “not man enough” could diminish their will to get it done rather than inspiring them.

    One thing I like about this ad is the sense of unity among the survivors and current victims of cancer. Although the ad may be a bit harsh on those who are not mentally strong enough to fight cancer, at least through this ad they will see that if/when they are ready, there is an entire community out there to support them. The colonoscopy ad didn’t do that and rather placed the entirety of getting the procedure on the individual, failing to take cultural background into consideration.

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