Victim blaming is an ineffective health tool

Evelyn Lewin

29/05/2019 2:47:29 PM

A new healthcare campaign was meant to ‘shock and confront’, but Dr Evelyn Lewin believes it may have gone too far.

Victim in the spotlight
Dr Lewin is concerned the ad ‘implies fault where we should provide compassion’.

A new advertisement from the Heart Foundation is making people see red.
The campaign, titled ‘Heartless Words’, originally featured a scene in which a mother puts her child to bed and says, ‘Every time I told you I loved you, I was lying. You are not my priority.’
In another scene, parents are watching their child perform on stage.
The father then turns to his wife and says, ‘If I really loved you both, I’d protect my heart to protect yours. But I don’t.’
‘Because it’s not just my heart I don’t care about; it’s yours,’ a mother in a hospital bed says to her daughter.
The clip ends with the on-screen message:
‘What are you saying if you don’t get a Heart Health Check?’

When I saw the ad, I was taken aback.
While heart disease is undeniably of significant concern – killing 51 Australians every day – I worry that the ad misses the mark and implies fault where we should provide compassion.
One of my concerns is that the ad engages in victim blaming, implying that people who have heart disease somehow chose to have this condition by virtue of not doing everything in their power to modify their risk factors for this disease.
By that logic, we could say that people who partake in any behaviour that may negatively impact their health in any way are then to blame for their resulting ailments.
This is not only upsetting, it is an ineffective health tool, with research showing that blaming victims doesn’t improve health outcomes.
The study found it may rather deter patients from seeking medical help.
Professor Grant Drummond, who heads a department devoted to cardiovascular research at La Trobe University, is also worried the ad could be interpreted as victim-blaming, especially considering the complex causes of heart disease.
‘There [are] many young, fit people who lead very healthy lives struck down by sudden heart attacks and strokes, so it’s really important to remove the stigma that it is all brought on by your own lifestyle choices,’ he said.
That is a vital point. The ad makes it seem, at least to me, that heart disease is always preventable.

The ad incensed people in and out of healthcare.
The part of the ad that really upset me, however, was the fact it was spreading the idea that if you have heart disease you somehow don’t love your family.
What a hurtful message.
One man, whose wife died from a heart attack, took to Twitter to call the ad ‘insensitive and vile’.
‘I don’t want our son watching or hearing this type of rubbish advertising,’ he wrote. ‘His mother loved him very much and this [advertisement] is a disgrace to your organisation.’
His sentiment was echoed by countless others, including advertising veteran and campaigner Dee Madigan.
She said marketers have used parental guilt ‘for years’ when it comes to protecting children against, for example, the threat of germs and smoking cessation.
‘But none of them imply that if you don’t change your behaviour it’s because you didn’t love your family. It is a truly awful, awful strategy,’ she said.
‘Imagine how any kid who has lost a parent to heart disease feels when hearing this,’ she also tweeted.
At first, the Heart Foundation stood by its original advertisement. Chief Executive John Kelly, said the ad was ‘shocking and confronting,’ but necessary.
‘Some people will take offence and we apologise for that. But the level of complacency requires us to have this conversation,’ he said.
But as the tidal wave of criticism and anger towards this campaign continued to grow, the Heart Foundation responded by removing a scene and offering an apology.
In some way, I understand what the Heart Foundation was hoping to achieve with this ad.
By creating a ‘shocking and confronting’ advertisement, the organisation is looking to kick-start much-needed conversations around heart disease.
After all, the successful Grim Reaper ads were also shocking and confronting, as is looking at real-life images on cigarette packaging of the potential harm smoking can cause.
But where this campaign falls short, I believe, is in its implications that engaging in unsafe behaviour means you don’t love your family.
I also worry that, amidst all of the (understandable) outrage, anger and unmitigated emotion people have felt towards this ad, the message it’s trying to send is being diluted.
And that message, which accompanied the original ad on social media, is crucial, imploring patients to ‘visit your GP for a Heart Health Check today’.
‘If people took advantage of the new Heart Health Check MBS item, this could prevent more than 76,500 heart events over the next five years, including heart attacks and strokes, and more than 9000 deaths. That is a lot of human suffering that could be avoided,’ Heart Foundation Victoria Chief Executive Kellie-Ann Jolly said.
‘That is why our message is that looking after your heart means you are also looking after the hearts of those who love you.
‘We realise that not everyone will agree with our approach. However, our intention is from a good place, to save lives.’
That’s a message I completely support, and which I believe should be widely spread.
But I am concerned that, instead of helping people see their GP and aim to achieve better heart health, the focus will instead remain on the heartlessness of the campaign.

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Karen G.   29/05/2019 3:34:56 PM

Breast cancer patients have been copping the 'blame game' for years so welcome to the club. If a woman didn't have children because she didn't meet a suitable partner in her childbearing years it is labelled a 'lifestyle choice' and rationale for blaming her if she develops breast cancer. If a woman delayed childbearing until after 30 due to academic studies or professional demands it is labelled a 'lifestyle choice' and rationale for blaming a woman for developing breast cancer. Imbibe a few glasses of wine a week? Yet another 'lifestyle choice' to blame a woman if she develops breast cancer.

The Heart Foundation's campaign is cruel and heartless. Without a doubt it will have a harmful impact on vulnerable people, particularly the young who have lost a parent. The Foundation's brains trust failed in their judgment by approving the campaign.

Dale van der Mescht   30/05/2019 8:24:05 AM

I think people are little bit too sensitive around this issue. Not once is it saying your DISEASE is your fault. The point is not going to get checked. If some has heart disease and keeps smoking and eating hungry jacks then they ARE partly to blame. People need to understand that. The ad campaign is geared towards getting checked up to make sure you don’t have it.

Seriously. People are too touchy about stuff it’s an advert for crying out loud. Will it work, probably not but at least they are trying.

Dr Farid Zaer   30/05/2019 8:55:37 AM

What kind of victim is worthy of being blamed? There are those who are victims of their bad genes, environment and circumstances (poor living, poor education) these are blameless victims, and society cannot look down on them. But the second category of victims, live terrible lifestyles, do everything wrong, have the best genetics, and choose food and lifestyle that is just abusive to their bodies, and despite warning signs persist in perilous behaviour and ignore treatment,these are worthy of blame!

Ravi Bundellu   30/05/2019 10:35:01 AM

This is not the first ad
Why don’t responsible agencies consult GP’s before broadcasting these outrageous ad’s?

Jane Smith   30/05/2019 12:41:05 PM

The melanoma TV Ad is also worthy of calling out as highly distasteful as it implies that everyone who has ever had a melanoma removed has the cancer cells spreading through their body to come back at any time.
Not only is this factually incorrect ( about 14,000 diagnosed melanomas are removed but only 1,700 die from metastatic melanoma AIHW 2016) but it induces harm by way of anxiety and making well people likely to have been cured doubt the success of their treatments.
There should be far more scrutiny and control of so called public health advertising to the general public, to reduce the unintended consequences of damaging people's sense of wellbeing