United States / Profiteering

Marketing Childhood Cancer

When the average person hears the phrase “childhood cancer,” they likely have a specific image in their mind. That is, an image of a bald, pale, sickly child, either stick thin or puffy and bloated. This is no coincidence, as cancer charities and treatment centers have carefully cultivated a one-dimensional idea of illness since their inception, serving the sole purpose of making them money. Some argue that this is perfectly valid; these images are representative of many children with cancer, and it is acceptable as long as the money being raised will help them. In reality, only a very small portion of the money raised by most of these organizations actually goes towards research and helping children. Instead the money is spent in favor of bloated administrative and organizational budgets. I will break down this complicated situation in a series that shows the ultimate harm of the marketing of childhood cancer by charities, hospitals, and mass media on sick children and their families.

A recent television advertisement released by the American Cancer Society shows a woman angrily chopping wood before going inside to comfort her sick child. The voiceover talks about anger and how it increases cancer survival rates, concluding with the suggestion that donating to the American Cancer Society will do the same. This advertisement received wide backlash from the childhood cancer community of doctors, parents, and families of children who have faced cancer. They were shocked by the implication that anger, or anything a family would feel or do, could stop cancer, which contradicts all reasonable medical knowledge. Many were offended by the exploitation of a sick child for the sake of a manipulative fundraising campaign.

The American Cancer Society (ACS) is not the only charity running marketing campaigns like this; just about every cancer charity, in addition to many hospitals and treatment centers, uses the same marketing ploy to bring in donations. But the ACS is notable for just how little of these donations it actually uses to fund childhood cancer research. A 2013 internal audit from Ernst & Young found that out of the ACS’s total revenue of over $900 million, only about $12 million was directed toward grants specifically used to fund childhood cancer research, which is entirely separate from adult cancer research in the medical world. This is only 1.2 percent of their revenue, the vast majority of which is donated by the general public in response to ad campaigns like the one discussed. In comparison, a full 25 percent, or about $243 million, is spent on fundraising each year.

The rest of their resources are used for operating expenses (including salaries and other administrative costs) and the wide category of patient support and assistance. The ACS’s patient support services, which include cancer screening and lodging for patients, is essentially limited to adults, and the same is true for many peer organizations including the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society. For an organization that capitalizes on and sustains itself through promising to help sick children, it does not seem committed to actually improving their futures.

The harm done by the common image of a child with cancer is not limited to offending people. When a child is diagnosed with cancer, he and his family immediately recall the depressing, hopeless picture shown by all the apparently legitimate charities and organizations centered around cancer. This is an image that has not changed in decades, an image developed in an era where a cancer diagnosis was essentially a death sentence. This is simply not the reality now. People, particularly children, survive cancer now more than ever before, but this is never publicized.

The mainstream media also capitalizes on romanticized stories of children and teenagers with cancer in movies and television, compounding the issue of inaccurate and insincere portrayals. The old image of the sick and dying child may serve a purpose for organizations that rely on charitable donations or the film and television industries simply seeking a profit, but it is devastating to a family that may not realize the hope in their situation. If these organizations truly want to help, they must recognize this problem and move beyond taking advantage of sick children and the well-meaning public.