Gutless Ad Campaigns Deserve to Die

Sitting through the third cycle of a left-turn arrow in rush hour traffic, I sat with my head in my hand, leaned against the window mindlessly cataloguing the contents of the refrigerator to determine if I could conjure up some form of a decent meal at home. As my eyes scanned the streetscape they stopped abruptly on a huge ad in the bus shelter.  “The Genetically Privileged Deserve to Die.” WHAT?

Admittedly, the typography caught my eye first. I thought, “There’s a ballsy move. That’s some huge typography!” Then when I read the headline, I was baffled. Pair that with the strange woman in the photo, and the ad just crept right into my subconsciousness and stayed with me. It took me a couple of days to finally remember to Google the ads when I got to the office, but it stayed with me longer than any other ad I’ve seen in quite some time.

From the car, I couldn’t see the reveal – the secondary explanatory information that conveys the true heart of the campaign – that lung cancer patients face an unfair stigma that they somehow have done something to deserve the disease. Nor could I see the logo and associate the message with lung disease. For me, that makes the campaign work. I had to think about the campaign for days before I was able to figure out its point.

When Laughlin Constable, the agency behind the campaign, first launched the ads they went up without the reveal statements – saying only “Tattooed People Deserve to Die,” or “Crazy Old Aunts Deserve to Die,” etc. Naturally this was met with some controversy –  including some viewers in New York ripping down the ads. But this tactic achieved the same type of reaction that I had as a viewer from a distance – it created mystery, confusion, and in some instances an emotional reaction. When was the last time you had an emotional response to an ad about prostate cancer?

The campaign walks a very fine line of possibly offending people – and already has offended some. In his New York Times article about the campaign Stuart Elliot writes that “the reaction to the campaign so far has run ’80/20 supporters versus those who may find it offensive,’ says Laurie Fenton Ambrose, president and chief executive at the Lung Cancer Alliance in Washington. That is fine, she adds, because ‘we had to do something bold, brave, provocative and edgy, too,’ to ‘shake both the consciousness and subconscious’ of the public and generate ‘more compassion and support’ for those with lung cancer.”

In a matter of days, my own awareness has been raised and the campaign has created buzz beyond the streets – landing itself on the pages of the New York Times. I would say that these types of calculated risks are too few and far between. Understanding the value of your message and being willing to risk offending a few people in hopes of educating them can really pay off.

The HTML 5 based site deserves some attention too. Head over to and start scrolling down. You’ll find some pretty fascinating numbers about the impact of lung cancer and how comparatively under-funded it is. And quite smartly, all your scrolling leads you to an opportunity to share your findings on Facebook. Job well done Laughlin Constable.

What are your thoughts on this type of “shock-vertising?” Atlanta has begun to see its fair share of shocking ads related to health issues. Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta recently shocked the city with its wave of ads targeting obesity in children. Next week, we’ll re-cap some of the points shared at the IABC Atlanta luncheon this past Spring when Tim Whitehead, VP of Marketing & Communications at Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta shared his experience of rolling out the controversial ad campaign.