CAMPAIGN REPORT ON HEALTHCARE: The doctor’s view - Effective medical ads get their messages across by using striking visuals to illustrate a simple theme. Here Dr Ian Banks offers a healthcare professional’s evaluation of a noteworthy hand

At one time, a discreet brass plate outside the front door was the closest you could get to selling your wares as a doctor. These days, neon-lit signs with ’Feeling ill? See Dr Croak right now! Best rates in town.

At one time, a discreet brass plate outside the front door was the

closest you could get to selling your wares as a doctor. These days,

neon-lit signs with ’Feeling ill? See Dr Croak right now! Best rates in


No disease too trivial. Guaranteed no groping, no removal of kidneys

without prior permission and no unsolicited advice on making out your

will. A member of the BMA’ are still considered unprofessional - but

only just.

But selling medicine as distinct from medics is a different matter and

it’s big business. As a general practitioner and medical journalist, my

special interest is getting health messages across to people, not least

on how to look after themselves and use the NHS to their greatest

advantage when they really need it. Some ads help but others make me

reach for my Laudanum.

From 1948, the NHS successfully conditioned British people into the

false sense of security that it would always be there when they became


This mentality drives the TV advertising for PPP. A shadow follows each

person until they fall backwards for various reasons, only to be caught

by Big, if monochrome, Brother. ’Yes son, we are all going to die but

sip this, it will help you sleep.’ Bupa projects itself quite


’Sign up with us and become immortal.’ To drive the point home, its

upbeat television ad shows an incredible woman sprinting up to a cliff

edge - but not falling off and certainly not backwards. They want her to

stay that way, you see. This has all the placebo effect of pink

medicine. It has to be said, you feel better just looking at it.

Getting people to cut down on their drug dependence is nothing new. For

years in Northern Ireland a Department of Health cartoon character,

modelled on a popular local drag artist, popped her scarf-swathed head

into the surgery and asked: ’Doctor, doctor. Can I have a prescription?’

Paradoxically, the stereotypical representation of a Belfast cleaning

woman demanding a prescription did not seem to offend the Northern

Ireland public and my patients, with typical Irish irony, would

routinely parody the advert.

Pharmacists followed this up with an ad showing a groaning shelf of

talking medicine bottles collapsing under the strain of yet another


’Ask your pharmacist for advice’ came the helpful punchline.

In the same way Hoover has become synonymous with vacuum cleaners, some

medical products are known by their brand names. People talk of needing

an Elastoplast and not an occlusive dressing - which is no big


Ads for Elastoplast barely used the name because they didn’t need


Instead they assumed you knew what the pink, sticky fabric thing was and

simply said, ’There, there.’ You filled in the gaps.

The plaster as a universal sign of injury was used in an Easter campaign

designed to cut down on the number of night visits performed by GPs. A

cost-conscious government was becoming alarmed at the spiralling demand

for out-of-hours calls from family doctors, while GPs were increasingly

seeking early retirement. An ad from the Doctor Patient Partnership,

which featured an Easter bunny wearing a plaster and entreating patients

to ’Be nice. Think twice before lifting the phone’, prompted one

well-known GP representative to exclaim: ’Think twice? Most of my

patients don’t even think once.’ This genteel approach soon gave way to

a more brutally honest Department of Health pointing finger, where an

unnecessary call for a doctor caused a child to die from meningitis.

Night visit requests are now on the decline for the first time in some

parts of the country.

In response to criticism for being too soft and vague, the DPP recently

launched its ’heart attack’ campaign in the London Underground and at

football grounds. These posters and credit-card ads targeting men left

little room for doubt. Over a vivid picture of the Grim Reaper is the

headline, ’Heart attack: know the symptoms.’ The ad then lists them and

advises a swift 999 call if they

persist. ’Surely to God they don’t need to be told!’ one senior BBC

health programme producer exclaimed but then added sadly, ’Well yes,

they probably do.’Unfortunately, she is quite correct. Men classically

delay making that vital phonecall, putting their symptoms down to

indigestion, wind or dislike for the opposing team’s supporters.

Finally, I must declare an interest as a member of the Consumer Health

Information Centre but our ’Ebeneezer Sneezer’ campaign came up with a

genuine ’S-Me’ (’Swipe me. I never knew that!’) fact. Cold and flu

viruses are passed on by handshakes. More bad news for Freemasons. Dr

Ian Banks, a practising GP, is also a broadcaster and writer, and author

of The NHS Home Healthcare Guide.

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