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Using Humor in Healthcare: Four Reasons Marketers Won’t and Five Reasons Why You Should

Sarah Morgan

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I see your hackles rising. I can hear you starting to channel Joe Pesci. Humor, you’re thinking. I’m supposed to be funny? Funny how? Like I’m a clown? I amuse you? I make you laugh? Calm down, Goodfella. You’re not here to amuse me, and nobody’s saying you should try. Instead, let’s talk about how it’s possible to use humor and emotion properly in healthcare marketing.  

We do have to begin by admitting that there are pitfalls. Here’s what you need to watch out for.

  1. Humor requests a reaction. If you try to be funny, you’re going to get a response — whether positive or negative — and by its very nature, humor doesn’t work on everyone. We understand that in people, of course, but it can still be jarring when a corporate message falls flat. It’s one thing to recognize that not all of our communications will resonate, but humor is a particular sort of challenge. 
  2. Dark humor is an inside job. Planet Cancer, an online community for young adults with cancer, sells T-shirts with slogans like, “There are stronger ways to build character,” and underwear that alludes to the depilatory effects of chemo. It’s run by the people it serves, so the wit works. Were it sponsored by an external entity, such an attempt would be crass or offensive. To make dark humor work, you have to be part of the joke. 
  3. Some things just aren’t funny. Everyone’s seen examples of leaked internal “jokes” which are very, very unfunny — sometimes made by executives at patients’ expense. While self-deprecating humor is humanizing (and perhaps pharma could stand to laugh more at itself), a put-down is not humor. 
  4. It’s important to acknowledge that it can be done wrong. Using humor and emotion is a challenging proposition, so why consider it? Because it’s worth doing. Humor and emotion connect on a visceral level, making communication more than informative; it makes it empathetic. 

So here’s the upside.

  1. Empathy makes a difference. Brene Brown has a wonderful short explanation of the difference between empathy and sympathy. Empathy connects; sympathy distances. Empathizing makes a person feel understood; sympathizing makes a person feel pitiable. When people feel as if the humor is looking down on them, they can get defensive, which is what happened with a 2012 J&J video. Although nearly all viewers seemed to have liked it, a few found it condescending. (As noted above: humor recipients are opinionated.) If you can empathize, you can make your patients, caregivers or professionals feel less alone with their challenges. That matters.
  2. You only need to be a conversationalist, not a comedian. If you try to be funny, you probably won’t be, but if you try to have a conversation, you probably can. Bring members of your audience in, ask them for help, listen to what they say, and let them help you figure out how to tell your story. 
  3. Humor can acknowledge the unmentionable. The easiest way to shrink the elephant in the room is to laugh to it. Many conditions have embarrassing symptoms or carry social stigma. Ignoring it doesn’t help doctors or patients, but if you can find a lighthearted way to allude to it, you demonstrate your humanity and clear the air at the same time.  
  4. Humor catches your eye. FluMist’s “Pick Your Nose” campaign raked in awards because it took a fairly dull parental decision and made it actually funny to kids. When kids are laughing at a pharma ad, parents notice. 
  5. You don’t need to change everything. Sometimes marketers who attempt to inject humor and emotion think they must throw away all of their materials to institute a new lighthearted campaign. It doesn’t need to be all or nothing; it may be as simple as reviewing the tone of your copy. Seek to humanize your work, and write for a conversation, not for a lawyer. 

Engaging with patients and professionals using humor and emotion can be new and challenging, but it doesn’t have to be complex. And, done well, humor enables an entirely new level of meaningful conversation. 

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