Our media is saturated with health advertising. Perhaps it is not surprising that complaints about charity advertising are increasing each year. The latest furore is over a campaign by Pancreatic Cancer Action (PCA) a small charity with a limited budget who with Team Darwin launched an intentionally shocking campaign via YouTube and social media . Known as the ‘I wish I had…’ campaign the PCA adverts show a man and woman depicted wistfully ‘wishing’ that instead of being diagnosed with pancreatic cancer they had breast, cervical or testicular cancer because the survival rates are better. This intention to shock raises interesting questions about the competitive nature of charity funding and the relationship this competitive culture has to what is ostensibly the ‘real’ business – that of addressing issues of enduring illness.

The advert reveals that a diagnosis of pancreatic cancer means just 3% chance of surviving more than 5 years. The campaign has caused outrage and attracted a large number of posts and comments online. To add to the resonance of the campaign, those featured in the advert are not actors but have actually received a diagnosis of pancreatic cancer. Kerry Harvey told newspapers that she had endured many spiteful comments online about taking part in the controversial campaign. She died in February, 10 months after being diagnosed.

The Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) is now investigating the PCA on the grounds that it is running an “offensive and distressing” campaign.

This follows over 100 complaints and could lead to the advert being banned if it is found to have breached the code on the grounds of public harm and offence.

The Chief Executive of PCA, (Ali Stunt) is a survivor of pancreatic cancer and is unapologetic on the grounds that while this campaign attracted hundreds of complaints it also raised awareness of pancreatic cancer and the symptoms to millions of people. She also denies that offence was caused but agrees that the response was ‘strong’

 “The result was that we knew that once people understood the copy in the advert, the risk of genuine offence was very low. We also knew that the response generated was strong and was therefore likely to lodge in people’s memories – thus helping our objectives of raising awareness of this terrible disease and its symptoms.”

The organisation stands by its aggressive campaign, but has now shifted focus to promote a more educative, less divisive message. It is uncertain how many people did understand the ‘copy in the advert’. Those affected by breast cancer were swift to highlight that the campaign reflects inter charity competition:

Submitted by Anonymous on Thu, 06/02/2014 – 03:58. EDIT

“I was furious and upset when I saw the Pancreatic Cancer Action (PCA) charity’s ‘I wish I had breast cancer’ campaign.  It is so offensive, uninformed, hurtful, tactless, inconsiderate and wicked!  I have noticed that there is always a dubious comparison between breast cancer (BC) and other diseases, as if having BC is a wonderful experience!  People have made enormous efforts to raise awareness of BC which has made their campaigns so successful.  Many of these campaigners have had BC themselves. It appears that many organisations or charities that have not had as much success are bitter and jealous.  Therefore they continue to undermine and belittle BC awareness.  This is not the way to run a campaign.  It is so negative and ignorant! There is no validity in comparing one cancer to another in this way, as every one who has cancer has a different experience.  It is better not to have cancer at all! […] BC pervades every aspect of my life with great detriment.  There is a very high price to pay for survival.  I wish I NEVER had CANCER!”

Another commentator reflected that the ‘Pink Ribbon’ campaigns concerning breast cancer have been so successful that perhaps they have created a false impression that the disease is not so serious and perhaps public funding is not so urgent:

“the general public need to know breast cancer is not all fluffy and pink. If the message now out there is breast cancer is a cancer to wish for you may see a dip in money being donated. We and our families know breast cancer is not a to wish for disease but some really do see it as a minor hiccup now. It makes it harder for those of us stage 4 and the newly diagnosed, in fact anyone with breast cancer”

Complaints about charity advertisements appear to be a growing trend. I blogged previously about a St John’s Ambulance advert attracting 144 complaints as it depicted a man surviving cancer but who died because he choked at a barbecue and no one knew basic first aid.

The latest ASA report highlights that “non-commercial” advertising – the category in which charity campaigns fall – grew 61% to 2,058 year-on-year between 2011 and 2012.

The PCA campaign has been successful in creating ‘a big splash’ but clearly has attracted criticism from other charities. The Chief Executive of Breast Cancer Care, Samia al Qadhi,pointed out that “It is unhelpful to pit one cancer against another. Most of us know someone who has been affected by this dreadful, life threatening disease and know the impact it can have on those affected and their loved ones. We all need to do more to raise awareness of signs and symptoms of many cancers and the importance of early diagnosis”.

Underpinning this furore is the fact that not all cancers receive the same public attention, media profile or research funding. Breast cancer is widely reported, has a well developed slick campaign structure and is considered to be extremely ‘media friendly’. As one journalist described:

“Breast Cancer is incredibly newsworthy. It will virtually walk into a paper compared to trying to write about other forms of cancer of arguably greater social consequences. You only have to go up to the news desk and say ‘There is something about breast cancer’ and they will say ‘We will have it’ and ‘Go and do it’.”

Perhaps ultimately the PCA campaign has made explicit the tensions that have long been known to exist between charities as the competition for limited research budgets intensifies.  We are likely to see far more aggressive, hard hitting campaigns in the future. These might be memorable and successful in advertising terms but do they also however unwittingly create other stereotypes about the epidemiology of disease and those affected?