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Poster Children: When Cancer Charities Mislead To Raise Funds

Unless donations are going to support pediatric research, leave the kids out of it. (J Pat Carter/AP)closemore
Unless donations are going to support pediatric research, leave the kids out of it. (J Pat Carter/AP)

There is a national TV commercial running right now that you may have seen: A 40ish woman is chopping wood, her face strained not just with exertion, but with emotion. A male voiceover says, “We’re only human. We get angry. Out of control, mad to the core angry. So cancer, you’ve got two options. Get out of the way, or get rolled over.”

The woman goes inside and places a log in the fireplace. In the next shot, we see that there is sweet-faced young girl on the couch nearby. She is bald. The woman sits down and kisses her tenderly on the head. “Give now to the American Cancer Society,” the voiceover says.

It’s a beautiful spot. As an advertising creative, I appreciate the artistry. DDB Chicago, the agency behind the commercial, deserves the kudos it will get.

But I appreciate the ad on a gut level, too: I have felt the same intense anger and frustration that the mother in the commercial does. And I tenderly kissed my own young daughter’s bald head many times when she was undergoing treatment for leukemia.

Tugging on people’s heartstrings -- which the idea of sick children has a tendency to do -- is far more likely to open purse strings.

My daughter is a happy, energetic 8-year-old now, in remission and sporting a full head of hair. We owe her life to the research that has been done on acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL), the most common type of pediatric leukemia. Indeed, research advances have transformed a disease that was once a death sentence into one with a 90 percent five-year survival rate. Survival rates for the other most common pediatric cancers also continue to rise, thanks to the committed work of researchers.

Still, pediatric cancers remain the second leading cause of death in children aged 5 to 9 in the United States and most survivors will have chronic health problems. As the commercial suggests, there’s still a long way to go.

But if people want to help children like mine, donating to the American Cancer Society is not a great way to do it: In 2015, only 4 percent of the research dollars provided by the ACS went to childhood cancer research -- not exactly what one would assume, seeing the lady-with-the-axe commercial, or the other commercial in the campaign, featuring a bald teenager.

Likewise, most people probably assume that the quarters they slip into the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society’s cardboard displays at restaurants and dry cleaners, all of which feature a smiling bald child, go to childhood cancer research. In fact, only 9 percent of the research funded by the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society does.

Our daughter was treated at the Jimmy Fund clinic at Dana-Farber. I'd always assumed that the Jimmy Fund supported exclusively pediatric cancers, based on the name of the clinic as well as the very name and logo of the fund, which features the face of "Jimmy," the alias of the child cancer patient for whom the fund was originally founded. I'd also given coins to the Jimmy Fund/Variety Children's Charity movie theater campaign in the past, likewise assuming that children were the only beneficiaries. But in fact, the Jimmy Fund supports all of Dana-Farber, both its adult and pediatric programs and research.

It’s obvious why the ACS and other cancer organizations would feature children more prominently and frequently than adult patients. Tugging on people’s heartstrings — which the idea of sick children has a tendency to do -- is far more likely to open purse strings.

But even the most cynical marketers would agree that it’s unethical to lure potential customers on one thing and deliver something else. It’s called the bait and switch. And if it’s dishonest when it comes to cars or computers or cake mix, it should be viewed doubly so in the case of fundraising.

...it’s unethical to lure potential customers on one thing and deliver something else.

God knows I’m grateful for the work that organizations like Dana-Farber and the American Cancer Society have done for pediatric cancer. I don’t mean to suggest that their intentions aren’t good. I’m not even arguing — although others might — that they should be allocating more funds toward pediatric cancer. The fact that the lion’s share of the money these organizations raise goes toward adult cancers is a reflection of the simple fact that there are far more adult than pediatric cancer patients, and far more types of adult cancers. Childhood cancers, while arguably more devastating to families and communities, are, statistically speaking, rare. As the American Cancer Society states on its website, “Because we allow researchers to submit proposals of their choosing, the number of applications we get for each cancer type is largely reflective of the number of researchers who are working in that area. And, certain areas of cancer research draw more researchers than others.”

Fair enough. But the organization should market in a way that reflects the reality of what it funds, as should other cancer charities that primarily support adult cancers. To do otherwise is dishonest and manipulative. It’s misleading to would-be donors, and it’s a slap in the face to families like mine who have endured or will endure the nightmare of childhood cancer.

If you’d like to support childhood cancer research and services specifically, there are wonderful organizations like St. Baldrick’s Foundation, Alex’s Lemonade Stand and the McKenna Claire Foundation, to name just a few, that are completely dedicated to that cause — and therefore completely justified in using images of children in their marketing.

Related:

Jane Roper Cognoscenti contributor
Jane Roper is the author of "Double Time," a memoir, and "Eden Lake," a novel. She blogs here.

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