Cancer Center Advertisements Focus on Emotional Appeals

Yael Schenker, MD, MAS Assistant Professor Division of General Internal Medicine Section of Palliative Care and Medical Ethics University of Pittsburgh Pittsburgh, PA  15213 MedicalResearch.com Interview with:
Yael Schenker, MD, MAS
Assistant Professor
Division of General Internal Medicine
Section of Palliative Care and Medical Ethics
University of Pittsburgh
Pittsburgh, PA  15213

MedicalResearch: What are the main findings of the study? 

Dr. Schenker: We analyzed the content of cancer center advertisements placed in top TV and magazine media markets in 2012.  Out of 1427 advertisements that met our initial search criteria, we found 409 unique advertisements that promoted clinical services at 102 cancer centers across the country.  These advertisements promoted cancer treatments (88%) more often than cancer screening (18%) or supportive services (13%).  Provision of information about clinical services was scant.
For example, 27% of advertisements mentioned a benefit of advertised services and 2% quantified these benefits.  2% mentioned a risk of advertised services and no advertisements quantified these risks.  5% mentioned costs or insurance coverage and no advertisements mentioned availability under specific insurance plans.  In contrast, use of emotional appeals was frequent (85%).  Emotional appeals commonly evoked hope for survival, focused on treatment advances, used fighting language, and/or evoked fear.  Nearly half of all advertisements included patient testimonials, overwhelmingly focused on stories about survival or cure.  Only 15% of testimonials included a disclaimer (for example, “most patients do not experience these results”) and none described the outcome that a typical patient may expect.

MedicalResearch: Were any of the findings unexpected?

Dr. Schenker: Overall, we were surprised by the lack of specific information in these advertisements for clinical services.

MedicalResearch: What should clinicians and patients take away from your report?

Dr. Schenker: Cancer center advertisements are increasingly common.  I think it is important for clinicians and patients to be aware of the focus on survival and potential cure in these advertisements, as well as the use of emotional appeals.  I would encourage patients to seek more complete and balanced sources of information – and to talk with a trusted physician – when facing important decisions about their cancer care.

MedicalResearch: What recommendations do you have for future research as a result of this study?

Dr. Schenker: I want to emphasize that our study did not examine the effect of these advertisements on patients.  I think this is an important next step.  We are also interested in the extent to which cancer center advertising is associated with quality of care or healthcare costs.

Citation:

What Are Cancer Centers Advertising to the Public? A Content Analysis
Laura B. Vater, MPH; Julie M. Donohue, PhD; Robert Arnold, MD; Douglas B. White, MD, MAS; Edward Chu, MD; and Yael Schenker, MD, MAS

Ann Intern Med. Published online 27 May 2014 doi:10.7326/M14-0500