Is laughter the best medicine?

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Maybe not quiet, but humour can transform the power of consumer health communications.

Natasha Weeks, Executive Director and Consumer Health lead at Virgo Health and Golin, reflects on this year’s Cannes Lions.

People don’t sit up and listen to healthcare messages when they are preachy, scary or boring. So why do we continue to produce healthcare campaigns that are scaremongering, finger-pointing and overloaded with statistical data. Focusing too heavily on the problem can cause the very people we are trying to reach to put their fingers in their ears and ignore us.

Effective communication comes in many forms but reflecting on my experience at this year’s Cannes Lions Festival of Creativity – we should harness the power of humour to drive behaviour change.

Humour was a big theme at Cannes 2024. There were 13 new humour sub-categories, including PR. It featured in many panels, including the ‘Ready Laugh Again: The Return of Comedy’ session with comedian Kenan Thompson of Saturday Night Live. “Humour is all about connection,” he said. “Humour cuts through the noise. We live in a state of constant assault on our senses, but if something is funny, you’ll seek it out. It doesn’t mean you have to shy away from tough stuff, humour is one of the best ways to deal with rough things going on in the world.”

Health is no different. While leaning into levity as a healthcare brand is not always easy, when done right there is nothing to touch it. Our Specsavers audiology campaign, The Misheard Version, started a conversation about hearing loss that has been shied away from for years. And it was all down to the shared laugh over Rick Astley’s misheard lyrics. It’s difficult to do justice to it here without the backing instrumentals but “Your Aunt’s been naked” and “You wouldn’t catch nits from any other guy” did make people sit up and listen.

People avoid hearing tests because to many, it symbolises the beginning of the end – old age – and there is stigma around hearing aids. But the impact of hearing loss can be huge – from leaving employment early to loneliness. Hearing tests are also important because they can detect the early signs of chronic diseases, such as Alzheimer’s or diabetes.

Hearing loss isn’t funny, but our key insight that hearing loss is isolating and mishearing connects led us to a humourous idea that brought people together. Humour disrupts, connects, doesn’t judge and ultimately cuts through when serious messages don’t.

We weren’t laughing at people – we were all part of the joke – even our target audience’s kids were in on it. In using humour, we made hearing loss less heavy and created a simple reminder that we need to get our hearing checked.

And it worked. By shifting the conversation around hearing loss with a humorous, engaging campaign we were able to increase hearing tests by 66%.

Jury President Kat Thomas, on awarding the Grand Prix to The Misheard Version for Specsavers, said: “Healthcare is not a sexy category, and it was a very challenging brief, but they leant into humour in an all-in way to really tackle the stigma.”

Consumer health campaigns fundamentally need to engage audiences to prompt behaviour change, and humour is a powerful tool to do this. I look forward to seeing more healthcare campaigns utilise the power of humour – and take the stage at next year’s Cannes Lions.