The SickKids Foundation, the fundraising arm of the Toronto Hospital for Sick Children, recently unveiled its spectacular new campaign: Titled “VS,” the TV and print ads pit patients and providers against some formidable opponents like cancer, heart disease, cystic fibrosis and autism.
Unlike most campaigns in the health field, there is not a lot of tugging at the heartstrings here. Rather, the sick kids of Sick Kids are portrayed as warriors – superheroes, knights, boxers – who defiantly battle their illnesses and conditions.
One smashes a dialysis machine with a baseball bat, another joins a battle line with soldiers, and yet another jumps in a boxing ring to knock out cancer, with a throbbing hip-hop soundtrack to boot.
The ads will no doubt bring in big bucks. SickKids Foundation is already one of the country’s most successful fundraisers, having raked in $138-million last year, and the new $2-million campaign is specifically designed to attract new donors.
But, in doing so, the hospital and foundation have offended part of their clientele, namely parents of children with chronic illnesses and life-long disabilities, who don’t see themselves represented in the “we shall overcome” messaging.
The ads, and the objections to them, have also revived the long-standing debate about the appropriateness of the so-called battle metaphor.
Louise Kinross, editor of BLOOM, a magazine produced by Holland Bloorview Kids Rehabilitation Hospital, has written one of the most insightful critiques of the VS campaign.
She acknowledges that appealing to donors to help kids fight and triumph is a compelling message. After all, who doesn’t want to back a winner?
“But what about the messages it sends to kids and families who aren’t on the winning side?” she asks.
“When you define things in simple terms, you also imply that those who don’t beat their illness or disability are ‘losers.’”
Ms. Kinross, whose son Ben was born with the rare genetic disorder Langer-Giedion syndrome, says some of the images in the ad campaign, such as that of a girl standing defiantly on a huge pile of discarded wheelchairs, “feel like a betrayal.”
She notes that in the ads, all the triumphant patients stand on one or two feet and, some medical equipment aside, look pretty “normal” (for lack of a better word), meaning no obvious congenital deformities.
This is hardly an accurate or nuanced depiction of the clientele of Sick Kids, where children with some of the world’s most medically complex conditions turn for help and, in many cases, life-long support.
Not to mention that not all children get better, or survive. In the ads, there are a couple of brief references to this reality – a re-enactment of a child being revived by defibrillation after his heart stops, and a nod to Grace Bowen, a girl featured in an earlier SickKids campaign, who died of osteosarcoma. But the overall zeitgeist of the campaign screams out sick kids go to war with their illness. If they’re strong, they will beat it.
Not every condition can be cured. Battling hard does not ensure victory. And sometimes, you can’t or don’t want to fight because it’s too hard.
To be fair, some children and their families do find the battle metaphor empowering – and all the more power to them.
The same goes for patients who are inspired and invigorated by breast-cancer walks, and proud to sport the ribbons of their cause – pink, red, purple and so on.
But, the way individuals respond to illness, and even the possibility of illness, is varied and complex, and even complicated.
What we need is to ensure is that the deeply embedded human desire to survive and thrive is not exploited and perverted, as it is with obscene pink-washing gestures like painting fighter jets pink, and that the desire to do good (and raise money) does not lead us to sell false hope.
The SickKids ad campaign does not cross those lines but it comes perilously close.
The role of a foundation is to raise money, not to provide succour. That they portray the world in black and white – a parade of pathos one year, a battlefield the next – is not surprising.
But at the hospital, where care is proffered, there cannot be a single narrative. Battle is not always an apt metaphor.
Sick is not weak. Sometimes sick is just sick. And it is no less deserving of support.
Editor's note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly said Sick Kids raised $38-million in 2015. In fact, it raised $138-million.