Defending a Children’s Hospital Ad Campaign

Believe it or not, an advertising campaign that has been put out by a children’s hospital in Toronto is under attack. The SickKids Hospital “VS'” Campaign features big, bombastic pieces that are not only strikingly visual but are designed to attract new donors and help bring in millions of dollars in fundraising revenue. Yet there are people who have come out against the effort. They argue that the “battle” metaphor used in the ads to depict children overcoming their illnesses and disabilities does so in a way that is not inclusive to kids with more severe circumstances, and that the ads are not sensitive to those who will never improve from a medical standpoint either. The leading article against the campaign, titled “Why I can’t be ‘for’ the SickKids vs’ ads” points out the various issues she and a few others believe to be problematic.

I found out about this movement by my sister who is in the process of becoming an MD, and who herself spent time at SickKids hospital as a child and teen. I have to admit that at first I was enraged and could not believe that anyone would be against measures taken to bring millions of dollars and new donors into the fold. Reading the article and opinion pieces against the campaign, I tried to rationalize the arguments to the best of my ability but couldn’t get away from what only felt naturally logical: great ads = more funding = cures tomorrow and better treatment today. Originally, I planned on writing a lengthy rebuttal in the comment section of her post, and tear the critique apart point-by-point. However, just before lighting the piece up, I decided to look into the author first. When I discovered that she personally was the mother of a child with severe mental and physical disabilities, I immediately had a change of heart. An epiphany if you will. It’s was not my place to tell her or any other parent in that situation how to feel about something that I don’t live with myself and can’t even begin to imagine. If the ads had hurt her or anyone in that situation in any way, or worse, made their child feel lesser, invalid or unrepresented, then, of course, I don’t like that at all.

Yet I still do believe that the merits of the ads far outweigh the negatives, and I would like to quantify that by drawing upon a similar turn of events that happened many years ago.

In the 80s and 90s, there were a few people, also in Canada, who argued that the fanfare surrounding a man named Terry Fox and his “Marathon of Hope” was in fact, detrimental to other persons with disabilities; especially those with extreme circumstances. For those who don’t know, Fox became a national icon in Canada back in 1980 after losing his leg to cancer and then attempting to jog across the country on his prosthetic leg at the age of 22. Though his cancer eventually metastasized and took his life before he could complete the journey, the awareness the marathon created, and the millions of dollars raised pushed Terry to become forever ingrained in the Canadian national lexicon, right up there with moose, hockey, healthcare, Mounties and maple syrup. That being said, there were people out there who felt that the publicity of his run across the country created an environment where all disabled people were made to feel as if they had to achieve something extraordinary, or were expected become “Supercrips” in order to be validated by mainstream society. In the same way that many children cannot partake in the “battle” metaphor proposed by the new SKH ads, many people couldn’t achieve grandiose tasks like the one taken on by Terry Fox. Though even he ended up “losing” his battle against cancer, since that time, awareness has increased ten-fold, and over $700 million dollars has been raised as a direct result of his legacy. Many cancer treatments that didn’t exist in 1981 do today and the survival rate from Osteosarcoma, the type Fox in particular, has increased to over 80% without amputation. That is huge.

After speaking to a friend of mine who has kids with disabilities, I’ve come to believe that there was one image in the campaign of questionable nature that should be removed from future ads. It is the one of a girl standing atop a mountain of twisted wheelchairs as if she had conquered them in a match to the death. This is okay for someone who breaks a leg and will eventually walk again, but for those who will be confined to the chair for life, I can certainly understand why it may have been viewed as offensive. Besides, for the rest of the general public who don’t have a kid in a chair, leaving out that one image or using something else would have the same strong result anyways. As my friend put it, still “Lots of awareness for the hospital, and more money to thrive.”

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For the rest of the “VS” ad campaign in general, nobody wants their child or loved one to be a martyr or the “loser” of a battle, but they certainly don’t want others, including those in the future to experience the same disabilities and illnesses either. The campaign may not have shed light on every circumstance or individual battle that children with major illnesses and disabilities faces, but the funds, awareness and new donors that they do bring in will no doubt help win the overall war against all of these issues in the long term; just like The Terry Fox Run did.

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