Communicating about sensitive topics: cancer & humour

The other day, I was sitting watching a Netflix documentary on Tig Notaro, this forty-something American stand-up comedian who survived breast cancer and talks about it in her shows. Her dark humour and realism is like a slap in the face, a cure for apathy. She really gets you to laugh along in the face of cancer.

This got me thinking about the way humour has been used in marketing and advertising to communicate about serious topics like cancer. Is it ok to laugh about things you should not laugh about? Can we really have a smile on our faces, or is advertising perverting us once more? I did my bit of research on cancer and the way we communicate about it…

Most of cancer-related advertising is about prevention or research support, most of which usually use appeals like fear or guilt, and humour seems to be left out. Except here…

Testicular Cancer Canada awareness campaign

Rethink breast cancer campaign

I really enjoyed these videos. They de-dramatise the issue and while pointing out how important it is to be aware of it and do your best to prevent it. Humour has indeed been pointed out as a good alternative against fear, which is deemed unethical in social marketing communication (Hasting, Stead and Webb, 2004). There seems to be little research about humour in cancer-related advertising and aside from prevention campaigns, I have not found campaigns with actual cancer patients or survivors using humour for commercial purposes. Do you know any? please share!

More on communication and humour around sensitive topics:

Check out the Netflix documentary on Tig Notaro – or watch her stand-ups…it’s pure brilliant.

See this list of breast cancer awareness ads using humour

Check out this master’s thesis on cancer patients blogging and using humour as a coping mechanism (great research, but without commercial background)

Hastings, G., Stead, M., & Webb, J. (2004). Fear appeals in social marketing: Strategic and ethical reasons for concern. Psychology & Marketing, 21(11), 961-986.


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