For many years I have worked in communication in the healthcare field, developing dozens of campaigns that aimed at raising awareness on cardiovascular and oncological prevention in different European countries.
Every time, we were accompanied by researchers and doctors who, always, pushed us to face the message with a sensitive approach towards patients. One of them is Dr. Aron Goldhirsch, a worldwide renowned oncologist also active in Ticino, who affirms that “shocking campaigns separate” whereas the objective is involving people in an awareness-raising action starting from “the patient’s personal life, his friendships and his work”.
In the case of oncology, where the science’s signs of progress are measured mostly through the ability to “educate” the population on the topic, the weight of words and images takes on a fundamental role.
Psychotherapist Cristina Milani, who is engaged with kindness in interpersonal communication and mass media, states that “scaring people is an old communication technique. Involving people, on the other hand, is innovative”.
Still, on the same topic, I would like to point out that until a few years ago cancer was defined as an “incurable illness” by media. Only since few years, we have become able to define it with its name, a frightening, horrible, but true, word.
As it often happens, when a word becomes commonly accepted, it starts to be abused and politicians (yes, still those…) force the term according to their needs. “That attitude is a cancer for the society”, hinting at the devastating force of the illness, at the metastasis, and at the same time bringing out pain and frustration in thousands of people suffering from the illness.
The weight of words is unbearable when one suffers from an illness, even though today, luckily and thanks to science, it is a curable illness. There is hope, there is the actual possibility to consider it as a curable illness, when once it was just incurable.
The communication scopes for awareness-raising are various and also less grave than those at the beginning of this article.
We all remember an effective campaign against cigarette smoke in the 90s. Almost everywhere there were billboards with a cigarette on a red background. The cigarette had a knot shape, stressing the concept of quitting smoking.
It was not a campaign that shook human sensitivity.
In fact, in the faster and more cynical present age, in order to impress the viewers at the most, prevention campaigns often rely on the shock effect, using images that create a repulse desire towards the topic.
Nevertheless, they are not always effective.
A recent US research analyzed the effect that certain strong and explicit messages on smoke damages can have on people. Some researchers from Missouri University found out that shocking images can have a counterproductive effect, inducing individuals to remove those messages from their minds.
Unlike softer campaigns, those which are very direct provoke more attention, inducing a self-defensive manner.
This boomerang effect is caused by a self-defense mechanism that the brain uses when it faces situations that upset the person’s emotional stability: in order to reduce the psychological impact, it interrupts its processing.
Fabio Regazzi is a very intuitive politician from Ticino, who in a recent anti-Aids campaign of the Confederation proclaimed: “I am disgusted!”
The shocking campaigns by Oliviero Toscani for Benetton were provocative but sensitive. They were so because they induced to reasoning and not to repulsion. The newborn baby with its shown off the umbilical cord, the black horse mating the white horse, the nun and the priest kissing may have disturbed some countryside parish priests’ sleep, but nothing more than that. For most of us they were occasions to think about central topics of our society.
After having harshly criticized those in charge for the campaign, Fabio Regazzi affirms also that “the effectiveness of a public communication initiative must be measured with reliable and qualified tools” in other terms “the statement of a politician or of a creative mind who believe that a goal can be reached by hitting the media is not true”.
In public communication, “an index of good management is the capacity to generate results which are measurable and interesting from the perspective of the developing of ideas in society, and the perception of the State as solver of critical situations for the citizens. For these reasons, that campaign is a big failure”, concludes Regazzi.
The reasoning of the Swiss politician is smooth. The goal of a campaign such as the abovementioned “is not to make people speak about it, but to reduce Aids infections” hence the use of pornography is not functional to the goal, and most of all ineffective. The aforesaid American study proves that, but also common sense does.
In fact, the campaign is very ordinary. From a laic perspective, it is about pictures of common young people having sex.
If it aimed at being a smart campaign, the idea that should make us think is missing; the shocking element is missing too.
Something like that doesn’t interest anyone


Read the published version in Italian here