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(UPDATE) American Cancer Society: “Only” A Fundraising Ad, Right?

EDITOR’S NOTE: Following Gary Schwitzer’s August 11th blog post below entitled “American Cancer Society: ‘Only’ A Fundraising Ad, Right?”, the American Cancer Society pulled its “Screening Is Seeing” ad the next day.

See Schwitzer’s follow-up post “Screening Is Seeing” Ad By American Cancer Society-Cancer Action Network (ACS-CAN) Is Pulled” and a related article by Mary Carmichael of Newsweek: “The American Cancer Society’s Misleading New Ads.

Also see “Common Themes In The Alzheimer’s Test Stories And The Cancer Society Screening Ad” by Schwitzer.


American Cancer Society: “Only” A Fundraising Ad, Right?

A well-intentioned ad campaign run by the American Cancer Society is too vague, and therefore may leave impressions that are imbalanced, incomplete and unsubstantiated — the kind of common tactic seen in many drug company ads. That’s my opinion based on my analysis of the ad and based on my reading of the text.

An American Cancer Society news release states:

The American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network (ACS CAN) is launching a new print and online advertising campaign in congressional districts across the country this week, urging lawmakers to fully fund a lifesaving cancer prevention, early detection and diagnostic program that is celebrating 20 years of screening low income, uninsured, and medically underserved women for breast and cervical cancer. The ads also send the message that when it comes to increasing your odds of surviving cancer, access to evidence-based early detection tools is critical.

The ads reference the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) National Breast and Cervical Cancer Early Detection Program (NBCCEDP), which has a track record of reducing deaths from breast and cervical cancer. The program has provided more than 9 million screening exams to more than 3 million women and diagnosed more than 40,000 cases of breast cancer and more than 2,000 cases of cervical cancer since it launched in 1990. But with limited funding, the program is able to serve fewer than 1 in 5 eligible women.

The accomplishments of the CDC NBCCEDP are noteworthy. So this blog entry is no knock on that program. It’s a criticism of the ad.

We can't fight cancer if we can't see it AD.jpg

There is no specific mention of the specific goals of the CDC NBCCEDP. The ad doesn’t state what the news release states that this is promoting “20 years of screening low income, uninsured, and medically underserved women for breast and cervical cancer.”

Instead, the ad promotes unspecified screening — all screening, one could infer. “We can’t fight cancer if we can’t see it….When it comes to cancer, screening is seeing…It’s time to take the blindfolds off and stop cancer before it starts.” Catchy phrases from an ad agency or from someone creative at the Cancer Society. But are we talking about prostate cancer screening? Lung cancer CT scan screening? Ovarian cancer screening? Show me where it does NOT say that. And show me where it DOES say this was about breast & pap smear screening for medically underserved women?

But this is a fund raising and political message: “Current funding isn’t enough…tell your members of Congress (to) increase funding…”

And when you’re raising funds, a little vague fear-mongering can’t hurt, right?


One other piece of copy from the ad demands scrutiny: “60 percent of cancer deaths could be prevented.” The implication is that’s all from screening because screening is the only prevention method mentioned in the ad. Nothing about stop smoking or other lifestyle changes. If the ad meant to imply that 60 percent of cancer deaths could be prevented just from screening, it should provide the evidence for that. If the ad did not mean to imply that, but was just misleadingly vague, then I call for the ACS to pull this ad. In either case, I think they have a problem.

That unsubstantiated 60 percent figure is especially ironic since the ACS news release includes this line: “Access to evidence-based prevention is just one component of the fight to defeat cancer.” We needed a little more clear evidence here — evidence that would show that screening is just one part of prevention.

Earlier this summer I criticized a federal agency’s vague screening promotion ads. I’ll end this note in a fashion similar to the way I ended that note:

I know that the folks at the American Cancer Society (or their ad agency) had their hearts in the right place with this campaign, but their heads have to do a better job of learning how to communicate about screening. Or else they’ll be guilty of the same disease-mongering techniques that are so prevalent in so many other messages in general circulation these days. The worried well are constantly whipped into a frenzy over the supposed weapons of mass destruction inside all of us. As a physician-colleague reminded me: “All screening tests cause harm; some may do good as well.”

You’d never know it from the ACS ad. But then again, it’s “only” a fundraising ad, right?

*This blog post was originally published at Gary Schwitzer's HealthNewsReview Blog*

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