Irish Cancer Society defends its ‘I Want to Get Cancer” campaign

Communicators call the ‘deeply provocative’ campaign a necessary tool to garner attention. The public is slamming the PR initiative, calling it ‘idiotic’ and crude. Does it go too far?


The striking ads last just 10 seconds, but the spots are ruffling plenty of feathers.

A new PR campaign from the Irish Cancer Society features short promos on TV and social media with the words: “I want to get cancer.” Each spot shows four different people—a middle-aged couple, a young surfer and a young woman in a relationship. Each person says: “I want to get cancer.”

Is it too offensive or powerful PR?

Reporter Karen Funnell—a cancer survivor—recently opined about the controversy on the Irish Examiner:

The TV ads are only 10 seconds long and give no context at all. And while few would deny that they are provocative, they’ve also been described as confusing and offensive to people who have survived, succumbed to or continue to fight the disease.

There’s a lot to be said for the power of marketing. As a journalist, part of me thinks the play on the word ‘get’ is quite clever, and the shock value of the campaign certainly starts an uncomfortable conversation about a disease that affects almost every family in Ireland. And we do need to talk about it.

Of course, the Irish Cancer Society doesn’t want us to be diagnosed — quite the opposite, it’s fighting to eradicate the disease, and it does a good job with limited resources. If you agree with the idea that no publicity is bad publicity, then I suppose you could say the campaign has worked. To an extent.

Public outrage continued to erupt over the next few days, with people turning to Facebook and Twitter to blast the organization. Dolores Grace, who lost her 21-year-old son to the disease, was quoted in the Irish Examiner on Tuesday:

In the stark post, [Grace] tells the Irish Cancer Society: “If you truly want to get cancer, walk the wards of St Vincent’s in the Mater hospital. There are plenty in there who’ve ‘got’ cancer.

Here’s a sampling of posts on social media, including one from the grieving mother.

The Irish Cancer Society says criticism surrounding the troubling phrase prompted a follow-up line, according to the Irish Times<

The initial advertisement, which appeared on the front page of Tuesday’s Irish Times and in other publications, was followed the next day by another which read: “I want to get cancer and wring its bloody neck.”

The newspaper also reported on how communicators at the ICS developed the messaging:

Responding to criticism, the society’s head of communications, Gráinne O’Rourke, said the campaign aimed to encourage people to “understand” the illness rather than contract it…

Continuing, the Times reported:

“We spent two years in the planning for this. None of what has happened to date has been a surprise to us. We carefully thought this out. We’re not in the business of causing distress,” O’Rourke said.

“We’ve designed this to be deliberately provocative so that it will have people sit up and listen and take cancer seriously. There is an epidemic which, in many instances, does not need to exist.”

O’Rourke said there had been some negative comments under one of the campaign videos posted on the society’s Facebook page but that most of the reaction had been supportive.

The campaign was developed in association with the marketing firm Chemistry. The charity did not disclose how much it cost.

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According to the Irish Cancer Society’s website, by 2020 half of all Irish people will have developed cancer.

One day after the above article was published, the Irish Times reported the ads appear to be resonating with the public:

The charity said that, since posting a 40-second advert for the campaign on its Facebook page, it has been viewed more than 600,000 times, and “the high viewership has had a direct and immediate impact on the number of people availing of our services.”

It said its Cancer Nurseline had seen a 100 percent increase in inquiries on Wednesday, compared with the daily average.

The inquiries were about screening for cancer, lifestyle factors to reduce cancer risk and cancer prevention.

Health care communicators, is the campaign provocative (and effective) or simply crude? Please share your thoughts below.

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