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Breast cancer – messaging matters

Responding to the call to act – not just being aware of the problem – works in high-stakes cancer care. Marketing has a central role to play in making that call, says WPP’s Wendy Lund

Let’s not underestimate the problem. According to the World Health Organisation, breast cancer caused 685,000 deaths globally in 2020. Roughly half of all breast cancers occurred in women with no specific risk factors. Every country is affected. Just for reference, around 0.5-1% of breast cancers occur in men.

The four most common cancers occurring worldwide are female breast, lung, bowel and prostate cancers, with breast cancer surpassing lung cancer for the first time in 2020 as the most common cancer. It’s the most frequently diagnosed cancer among women in 140 of 184 countries worldwide.

But improvements in survival began in the 1990s when countries established breast cancer early detection and treatment programmes. Breast cancer mortality in high-income countries dropped by 40% between the 1980s and 2020. Countries that have succeeded in reducing breast cancer mortality have been able to achieve an annual breast cancer mortality reduction of 2-4% per year. This is huge – but there is so much more to be done.

The harsh reality is that responding to the call to act – not just being aware of the problem – works. And this is where our industry can literally save lives, in making that call.

Covid ruptured screening

During Covid, mammograms were delayed, women deprioritised themselves and the consequence of those behaviours is still being worked through today. The outcomes – given that survival can depend upon early detection – cannot possibly be positive. And it is not just women who need to do something; everyone around women should ensure that women have the space in which to execute self-care and improve outcomes.

Our industry is key but marketing has been hard to spot in this space. We saw from our study, Health on Her Terms, that media and advertising shy away from the representation of women’s health in their communications. Almost half of women reported that there are topics related to women that are taboo and are not openly represented in media and advertising at all.

Has messaging in media and advertising improved since before the study? Not really. Therapies have improved and become more available but, worryingly, there continues to be restricted access for some communities. In the US, despite similar incidence of disease, mortality from breast cancer among Black women is 40% higher compared with White women. This is a shocking statistic.

Imagine if we, in our industry, could help shift these figures – for all women – in a positive direction by encouraging women to take care of themselves.

Advertisers have an opportunity to get behind the spirit of Health on Her Terms, be authentic, work with role models who have suffered from breast cancer post-Covid and shift the focus from the disease itself to the whole experience, from screening to detection to treatment to reconstruction and aftercare – not to mention mental health.

We believe that brands that are willing to break biases and taboos, push boundaries and represent the uniqueness of all women will see exponential growth. Now is the time to break down historical health taboos, reflect women in the way they see themselves and call on them to prioritise their health.

Leading by example

We are already seeing the outcomes of communications in this area done well and are proud of the role we have played in this work. Grey, WPP and ASCO captured the first-ever sound of cancer cells being destroyed to create The Most Beautiful Sound.

This sound is predicated on two cancers: breast and lung cancer. The impact this sound has had on patients as they have heard cancer cells being destroyed has been hugely moving. They have spoken of a feeling of hope, victory, conquest over this insidious, horrible disease.

Further, The Postponed Day from WPP’s Grey in Argentina recognised the inadequacy of a single awareness day in tackling the rise of breast cancer cases worldwide. Grey used PR and social media to engage with 30 of Argentina’s largest NGOs to postpone their campaign launches around World Cancer Day. This action mirrored women’s tendency to postpone their health check-ups. The impact of the campaign extended beyond metrics; it made a meaningful difference to the lives of Argentine women themselves.

And Paintings of Hope by WPP’s VMLY&R in Spain helped change the law. The campaign raised awareness of unequal access to therapies and the emotional impact of this on patients. Paintings of Hope helped ensure approval times were brought into line with European which gives patients faster access to vital treatments.

These disruptive ideas, connected to brands’ sense of purpose, are what creative transformation in health is all about. If the first line of defence against breast cancer is the physician, the second line is the drug company, and the third could be our industry, working with brands and making the shift from awareness to action.

Wendy Lund


published on

15 November 2023



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