They can’t understand there is no happy ending

How VMLY&Rx and the ABC Global Alliance are changing the narrative for people with advanced breast cancer.

Nicola Kemp

Editorial Director Creativebrief


“It sometimes feels like a price has been put on our life and that isn’t right.”

“They just look at you as a walking corpse.”

“It is treated like a curse.”

“They can’t understand there is no happy ending, no getting better.”

These brutally honest insights into the experience of advanced breast cancer form the heart of a groundbreaking campaign from VMLY&Rx, which lifts the lid on stark realities that are all too often almost entirely absent from marketing or mainstream media narratives of cancer ‘survivors’. 

In marketing to women, historically the industry has been guilty of an over-reliance on a ‘pink it and shrink it’ approach. When it comes to breast cancer, amongst marketing’s ‘pink sea of hope’, there are women’s stories which simply aren’t being told; those of people facing up to the reality of living with advanced breast cancer.

Sarah-Jane Barker, Chief Medical Office Lead, Value Communications at VMLY&Rx, the force behind this genre-defying approach, says that her heart sinks when she hears the language that all too often accompanies any communication around breast cancer. “It is not a journey, it’s not a battle, it is not something you choose; you hear that fighting language, but when you actually speak to people you realise that it is not that simple,” she explains.

The fact that there is still no cure for advanced breast cancer means that in a narrative focused on a fight for survival, everyone loses. As Barker explains: “They don’t want to be defined by their disease or illness. They are still women with incredible value, they are still mothers and sisters and everything else in between.” Far from being a battle, it is an experience beyond their control. An experience which demands far more respect than the careless way that survivors are so often depicted. A carelessness that Barker attributes to the desire to elicit an emotional reaction.

They don’t want to be defined by their disease or illness. They are still women with incredible value, they are still mothers and sisters and everything else in between

Sarah-Jane Barker Chief Medical Office Lead, Value Communications at VMLY&Rx

Moving beyond a careless narrative 

Moving beyond this careless narrative is rooted in the long-term partnership between the ABC Global Alliance and VMLY&R. The strength of this partnership is evident both in the creative output and Barker’s empathy and understanding of the patients involved. 

For while we talk about authenticity in marketing, the brutal truth is that even in 2021 a ‘real woman’ in a marketing campaign is often little more than a gimmick. A campaign idea in its own right, rather than a reflection of a lived reality.

Yet it is lived reality which lies at the heart of the ABC Global Alliance’s drive to destigmatize the disease. There is a desire to improve outcomes for patients; something that comes from the deep respect and empathy the organisation has for those with the disease. This respect is similarly reflected in the number of hours that Barker has spent in patient groups and in the agency’s ethos and focus on patient experience.

VLMY&Rx as a whole has a clear point of view on patient advocacy; namely giving patients a voice and sparking the connections that lead to better health. It is an ambition rooted in the agency's implicit understanding that ultimately we are all patients. 

Authenticity from the outset 

It is this expertise and time well spent which drives the authenticity within the creative execution. 

“People are commissioned to do campaigns where they have never worked in the sector before and we really didn't want to do it in that way. Time was what mattered; we weren’t walking in there with the script,” explains Barker. 

There is an honesty which comes through in the campaign; reflecting the truth that there are no shortcuts to authentic storytelling. 

“It was very emotional for the film crew,” adds Barker. “There were all these beautiful insights and they were sad but they were true. We worked with the community over time and what you see when a patient sits in front of you is the whole person.”

The impact of Coronavirus’ collective grief

In the wake of the Coronavirus crisis a shift is afoot when it comes to how comfortable people are with talking about and addressing disease and loss. 

“I would like to think that people have changed their view about what is acceptable to talk about when it comes to grief,” explains Barker. Pointing to the daily death rates on television screens across the country, it is a shift that has made people more able to hear stories without a happy ending.

The tragic death of Girls Aloud singer Sarah Harding from breast cancer last month has also helped open up the conversation around the disease. “Having someone as young and widely known as Sarah Harding really hits home. People think that could be my daughter, or my mum and that really helps to accelerate the conversation,” says Barker. 

She continues: “It is not a cure story for everyone; the survival rates are high in early breast cancer. It is a balance and stories like Sarah Harding’s can only help.”

Yet, at the same time, Barker points to the fact that people are tired and emotional reserves are running low. As she explains: “It has been such a frightening time and people are also tired of the negativity. They want to see joy when we have been through so much.”

While it is often left unsaid, the truth is that health and wellness advertising, particularly when it comes to currently incurable diseases such as advanced breast cancer, demands a special kind of creative resilience. Far from that traditional, often gendered criticism of ‘you care too much’, when you scratch beneath the surface of the healthcare advertising industry you will often find deeply personal stories of loss and experiences which not just drives creators to the industry in the first place, but provide the fuel to create work they truly care about. 

As Barker explains: “We have to find ways to make some space from it. When you go really deep you can get into some really tough topics. But it is hugely rewarding to see that you have some kind of contribution to making a difference.”

In an industry which at times can feel like it's drowning in a sea of its own cynicism, this campaign underlines  an urgent truth: advertising can make a difference. By reflecting and representing the unflinching truth of these women’s stories this campaign underlines the enduring creative power of being seen.

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