Hospital spots dose reality with restraint

By Published on .

Advertiser: St. Thomas Health Services

Agency: Endres Eng Wilson, Nashville, Tenn.

Ad Review rating: Three and a half stars

``This story is real,'' reads the super that opens each of six serialized spots for St. Thomas Health Services in Nashville. ``There are no scripts and no actors.''

Rather, we're witness to a real-life crisis. Oscar-winning documentarian Barbara Kopple follows the case of 46-year-old Randy Morgan, who presents with a diseased aorta and undergoes high-risk surgery to repair it.

``This is not a simple, straightforward problem,'' we see the surgeon inform him. ``This is much more severe than we thought it was . . . it has a high risk of dying from the complications.''

A 20%-30% risk, he's told. It's terrifying, but Kopple and Nashville agency Endres Eng Wilson don't milk the melodrama, delivering instead subtle human moments of breathtaking poignancy.

``I want to see my brothers,'' Morgan announces upon hearing the prognosis. And then, trying to cheerfully confront the worst case: ``If this is it, I've had a good time, you know.''

Who needs a script with reality like that?

We see a silent prayer. When the surgeons open him up, we see their stunned reaction to the torn aorta that by rights should have killed him. And, of course, in the end we see Morgan walk out of the hospital, all fixed up.

There's the rub. Had the outcome been different, it wouldn't be on TV. If Morgan had died in surgery, or had a stroke in the recovery room, the film wouldn't even have been developed.

As genuine and moving as this story is, it is also, like previous ``documercials,'' built upon underlying deception: the failure to acknowledge that the story's outcome--unlike the patient's, unlike any St. Thomas patient's--is a foregone conclusion.

In that sense, there's a certain Hollywood-thriller quality to it. Just as we knew Sandra Bullock wasn't going to blow up on the bus in ``Speed,'' we know this guy isn't going to die. (That, after all, would send the wrong brand message. The ``Caring for You and Those Around You'' tagline may be lame, but it's better than ``St. Thomas. Hey, Nobody Bats 1.000'').

That we willingly suspend uncertainty about whether the patient will live allows the drama to survive, but what about truth? If a documentary implies documenting what happens, come what may, isn't there something dishonest when the come-what-may is removed from the equation?

The answer is yes. When Eastern Airlines used this technique in its last-ditch effort to win consumer sympathy, the self-serving selectivity of the footage underlined its propagandistic falsity. When e.p.t filmed ``real people'' reading their pregnancy results, it screamed of tabloid-TV exploitiveness.

What distinguishes this campaign--and redeems it--is its understatement and restraint.

To the credit of the advertiser and its agency, the selective truth is an unadorned truth. There is no suggestion, for instance, that St. Thomas somehow takes the fear out of health crises or gives you better odds against death. Indeed, it rather chillingly documents how lucky this guy was to make it to surgery, much less through it.

And it communicates the notion of care not by showing pillow-fluffing nurses or heroic surgeons in hand-to-scythe battle with the Grim Reaper, but by showing competent professionals soberly going about their business.

Their brutal candor is, paradoxically, confidence-inspiring--which is precisely what the campaign intends. This may not be true documentary, but it is a remarkable document nonetheless.

Copyright February 1998, Crain Communications Inc.

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