IMG_1480_cvDocs“We’re looking to do advertising that doesn’t look like healthcare advertising.” I’ve heard this, or some variation thereof, dozens of times over the past 30 years, and it always give me pause.

On one hand, it’s exactly the sort of request you want from your clients. It means they’re trying to do something that clearly differentiates themselves from their competition. Always nice to hear.

On the other hand, it seems like a daunting and nearly impossible challenge. How do you take a serious subject like health care and imagine it in a way that “doesn’t look like health care”?

And for that matter, why would you want to? Don’t you you want your advertising to look like the thing you’re promoting? Would it be unreasonable to say, “I want our advertising to look more like healthcare advertising than any healthcare advertising ever”?

I think you have to look past the literal request to the spirit of it. When clients say they don’t want their advertising to look like healthcare advertising, what they mean is that they want advertising that’s fresh and different and surprising. That’s a challenge that should warm the heart of every creative person in the industry.

Because healthcare advertising is usually among the most staid, conservative, and boring advertising in the world. Most healthcare organizations are risk averse. When everyone needs your services, you don’t want to take the chance of offending anyone. The result is lots of gauzy shots of smiling caregivers and grateful patients. The strings swell, the logo fades in, and all is well with the world. Nobody died this time.

So how do you do advertising that doesn’t look like healthcare advertising? You push it. You do unexpected. You entertain. You inspire. You move people. All the same rules apply: a Budweiser spot, artfully made, can make you weep. Why should healthcare advertising be any different?

More specifically, here are four ideas:

Go animated. Most emergency room spots feature dramatic music and flashing lights and gurneys bursting through doors. We went an entirely different path to introduce a service that gives you wait times at various St.Vincent emergency departments and immediate care centers: friendly, fun animation. It dramatizes the problem: your child gets hurt, and you want him to get care fast. But it portrays the problem in a non-threatening way and offers a clear solution.



Get real. This series of spots for St.Vincent Health is shot documentary style. These are all health care—but differ from typical healthcare advertising in their philosophical tone and their real-life, you-are-there feel. We’re not sure, but think this may be the first time it’s ever been admitted in a healthcare spot that people sometimes die.


Go big. Healthcare is literally about life and death. So why not swing for the fences? Why not strive for something big and lyrical and emotional? It also helps when your client agrees to buy two-minute spots.


Make ’em smile. Humor is hard to do in healthcare advertising. But it’s not impossible. We’ve seen healthcare spots that get big laughs. We also used gentle humor in a couple of St.Vincent campaigns–one for maternity services, the other for a 24/7 women’s health advice line and website. For Monogram Maternity, we used a first-person camera point of view to comic effect. For 338-4HER, we established St.Vincent nurse practitioner Julie Schnieders, our women’s health expert, as “always being there when you need her.” Which means Julie’s everywhere—literally—in these spots.





Does all of this advertising look like healthcare advertising? Of course it does: we’re advertising health care. Does it look like typical healthcare advertising? Not really, even though some of it uses the aforementioned gauzy shots and smiling doctors, and one spot is shot entirely in the hospital. We believe it’s all good advertising–meaning, in part, that it doesn’t look like everyone else’s advertising. Which is what clients really mean when they say they don’t want their stuff to look like healthcare advertising.

Could you push it further? Of course, you can. How brave are you?

As proof, we’ll leave you with a classic of healthcare advertising that we did not create. We would say, however, that if you’re interested in moving in this sort of direction, we’d be very interested in talking with you.