How to Get Representation in Healthcare Marketing Right

Updated on January 26, 2023

It’s difficult to watch a show on television or a streaming platform today without seeing a pharmaceutical commercial (or several of them!) during an ad break. As consumers, we’re continually exposed to messages about prescription drugs, over-the-counter medications and other health products and services. In fact, spend on healthcare advertising in the US was an estimated $21.3 billion in 2021. 

Healthcare marketers have various goals, from acquiring new customers and patients to bringing awareness to and destigmatizing conditions such as mental illness or mobilizing communities to take a specific action, like getting vaccinated. Considering diversity, equity and inclusion (DE&I) in healthcare advertising is an important step in reaching the right audiences and making these important messages memorable.  

Research from System1 that tracks viewers’ emotional responses to creative to determine long-term brand building potential shows that diversity-themed ads are more effective than the average US commercial. The general public responds more favorably to diverse ads and people from under-represented groups are likely to have a positive emotional response when they see themselves included and represented authentically in ads. This helps create mental availability for brands and supports profit and market share growth.  

Representation in healthcare advertising goes beyond just brand building benefits though. It can directly impact the way in which people from diverse backgrounds approach medical care, thereby enhancing quality of life. For example, Black adults have a higher risk of cardiovascular disease. Centering heart disease ads around those most at risk can help Black viewers in particular feel seen and connect with important prevention and treatment information. While it’s true there are casting limitations tied to which specific minority groups have been included in drug trials, advertisers should work to bring under-represented groups to the forefront whenever possible.    

We can all agree that effective healthcare marketing can bring about positive change. The question is how realistic representation can be incorporated into ads. Consider these tips: 

  • Don’t just check the box. Many healthcare ads pair a voiceover with inspiring visuals of people enjoying their lives thanks to the featured product or service. Increasingly, there is a diverse mix of individuals from different backgrounds but there’s room to improve upon this formula. 

Diversity doesn’t automatically make for a great ad. The most effective diverse ads go beyond simply checking the box of casting people from diverse backgrounds. Brands need to avoid tokenism and ensure that ads are actually showcasing the unique experiences and cultural nuances of those from under-represented groups. People want to feel seen and heard. If their only place is in the background or in a non-speaking role, it will be more difficult to engage with these viewers. 

  • Tell someone’s story, not everyone’s. The best brand building ads lean heavily into storytelling rather than focusing so closely on the key attributes of a product or service. To tell the strongest story within a short window, advertisers should focus on one person’s life rather than many people. Avoid the urge to follow the melting pot approach that highlights numerous people from different backgrounds. While it might seem counterintuitive, narrowing in on someone’s individuality can make an ad appeal to more viewers, not fewer. 

Considering diversity at the briefing stage is essential to telling stories that don’t typically get told, and truly making an impact. An engaging hook can open up viewers’ eyes to the many stories of the most marginalized.  

  • Avoid the sadness trap. Ads that incorporate diversity carry the risk of falling into the sadness trap if they focus too closely on the struggles of under-represented groups rather than celebrating people and their experiences. Healthcare advertisements face their own emotional hurdle, as they often tackle serious topics and discuss unpleasant symptoms related to medical conditions and product side effects. This can lead to feelings of sadness or even fear in viewers. 

Thus, an inclusive yet uplifting healthcare ad faces an uphill battle. Resolving any negative emotions before the ad’s conclusion is key. Various elements will play a part in driving happiness in viewers, such as the choice of music, lighting, character expressions and interactions and the story arc. Audiences remember great storytelling, which also helps pull the focus away from “fair balance” language regarding side effects that can seem never-ending. 

Mahima Santhanam

Mahima Santhanam is an EVP, Group Strategy Director Health at BBDO New York.

Yasmine Zavahir

Yasmine Zavahir is VP, Americas for System1 Group.