The Cliches of Children’s Hospital Advertising, and How to Avoid Them.

When it comes to cranking out generic, cliche-ridden advertising, children’s hospitals are unfortunately one of the biggest offenders. Not quite on the level of mattress stores, but close. Most efforts fall into one of two camps: blatant chest-beating or cloying, emotional manipulation.

And it’s not hard to understand why. No parent wants to think about their child being sick. And when the stakes are as high as they often are in children’s medicine, taking risks to stand out from the clutter is much harder than it is in, say, travel or retail advertising. What’s more, most of these organizations are run by medical professionals, not marketers. They are rational decision makers, and probably assume their audiences are as well. But as the healthcare industry continues to evolve and become more and more customer-centric, hospital advertising should evolve too. Here are a few ways to avoid these common cliches.

Skip the kid’s stuff. Crayon-drawn logos and cutesy kid voiceovers are much too prevalent. It’s almost as if people forget that the audience for a children’s hospital is not children, it’s their parents and the pediatricians who refer them. So why do many leading institutions adopt childish logos, color schemes, music, etc? Probably because it makes things seem less serious. But if you really think about the audience, a look and feel that is approachable yet instills confidence is much more appropriate. The kid stuff can come alive within the hospital walls, not in the outward-facing messaging.

Don’t tug too hard on the heartstrings. Nothing makes a viewer’s eyes well up faster than a sick or vulnerable child. But this particular tactic can come off as extremely manipulative, especially in channels that are aimed at wider audiences. Save the scarier imagery for digital channels where audiences have already identified themselves as needing specialty care. Hospitals already face the challenge that no one likes to think they will ever need one. Reminding them of the worst-case scenario only exacerbates that problem.

Reframe “expertise” on your own terms. Every hospital has expert doctors. Every hospital has really good expert doctors. Every hospital has really good expert doctors that are highly ranked and know how to bend down and talk to your kid at eye level. This is not news, it is table stakes. So the challenge is to present expertise in a way that feels relevant to parents and authentic to your particular institution, without all the bragging and chest-beating that most people have learned to tune out. In all of our work for Children’s National, we’re very careful to avoid sounding overly self-congratulatory, and to always present both parents and doctors as equal partners in the quest to keep their kids healthy.

Put a new spin on testimonials. Positive outcomes are obviously what everybody wants. But again, they are not a differentiator for any particular hospital or system. And it’s much harder than it seems to produce really honest, compelling before-and-after testimonials with children. They tend to sound forced, or blend together into a sea of sameness. Make sure any stories you tell have great storylines with a few truly interesting twists. In the newest spot in our “Grow Up Stronger” campaign for Children’s National Health System, we used real patient stories, culled from the past 70 years. But we presented them in reverse chronological order, from oldest to youngest. Seeing the progression play out draws the viewer in, avoids feeling overly cute or manipulative, and reinforces Children’s National’s legacy of helping kids and families in the DC area. They represent a living, breathing version of what it truly means to Grow Up Stronger.

What other hospital ad cliches should be avoided like the plague? Tell us in the comments.