Although most consumers know Toshiba as an electronics company, part of its business in the U.S. is the manufacturing of diagnostic and medical imagining equipment.
In fact, Toshiba American Medical Systems is looking for young people—ages 6 months to 18 years of age—to participate in a study to improve the MRI experience, according to ClinicalTrials.gov.
Yet a Toshiba ad campaign for its Satellite Ultrabook computer portrays people who take part in clinical trials as freaks. A young man—only slightly older than the people Toshiba Medical Systems seeks for its MRI study—is cast as a “professional medical test subject.” During the 30-second commercial, he is subjected to bizarre experiments that turn him into a purple-faced monster. At one point he refers to the subjects of clinical trials as “test monkeys.”
The campaign surprised and angered a number of people in the clinical research industry, who have voiced their complaints in the comments section of the commercial’s YouTube page. It also caught the attention of the Association of Clinical Research Organizations (ACRO), which represents companies that test medical products.
“It’s dangerous,” John J. Lewis, vice president of public affairs at ACRO, said of the campaign. “We don’t need any more reasons to discourage people from research. We need to encourage people and not portray them as some kind of freak.”
Lewis said employees of the clinical research companies that ACRO represents are offended by the ads—the commercial and a print ad focused on cosmetic testing.
Recruiting patients for clinical trials is a challenge in the medical community. According to the Center for Information and Study on Clinical Research Participation, fewer than 4 percent of all U.S. physicians participate in clinical trials.
A 2006 paper from the Center for Accelerating Medical Solutions Clinical said the challenge of getting patients to join trials, and retain them once they begin, is “daunting and perhaps even surmountable.”
Of course, the subjects of clinical trials are often material for comedy writers. Although ACRO doesn’t like to see this portrayal, Lewis understands when it’s done in a sitcom. “They don’t have a social responsibility to uphold,” he said. “But when it’s Toshiba, we find it particularly odd.”
The ad does seem to contradict parts of Toshiba’s corporate social responsibility guidelines. According to its standards of conduct for advertising, Toshiba group directors and employees should “not use advertising to cast third parities in a negative light, in an attempt to make Toshiba Group appear more favorable, or for any other negative purpose.”
ACRO reached out to Toshiba to share its opinion of the ads and start a conversation on the topic.
On June 20, ACRO Executive Director Douglas Peddicord sent a letter to Toshiba America Chairman and CEO Yoshihide Fujii making clear that the association found the ad “extremely offensive and beneath what we believed to have been Toshiba’s corporate standards.”
“I view this as an opportunity to invite you on behalf of Toshiba, to join ACRO in our on-going global dialogue aimed at maintaining the high standards for global research participants and to treat them with the respect they deserve for their important contribution to medical science.”
Toshiba responded six days later with this brief letter from Tom Hume, Toshiba’s director of marketing communications:
“Dear Mr. Peddicord,
“Thank you so much for raising your concerns over one of Toshiba’s new television commercials showing people in medical testing situations.
“Our intent was not to minimize the value of clinical research or insult people participating in clinical trials.
“We will absolutely take your objections into consideration as we develop future advertising.”
ACRO wasn’t satisfied with the response. “We think they should just pull the ad campaign,” Lewis said.
Toshiba did not respond to a request for comment.
Gil Rudawsky, a crisis communications counselor and PR Daily columnist, thought Toshiba’s response was perfect.
“It didn’t go overboard trying to apologize to the association,” he said. “The only addition I would have recommended would be to slightly increase the amount of empathy and fortify the response with some facts relating to Toshiba’s medical experience and accomplishments.”
Rudawsky also gave credit to ACRO for sharing its message without sounding inflammatory. And that’s the exact approach the organization is taking. According to Lewis, ACRO doesn’t plan to wage a war against the campaign; it wants to simply draw attention the ads.
“People who take part in trials should not be denigrated in the interest of humor,” he said. “They should be congratulated.”