Study: No hospital ad campaign stands out in Philadelphia

Although the Philadelphia region has one of the highest concentrations of available medical services in the U.S., the advertising techniques for these healthcare facilities lack variation and seem to be from the same 'playbook,' according to a study conducted by Philadelphia-based Drexel University researchers.

The researchers analyzed all available hospital ads in the Philadelphia Inquirer's Health section, from the study's inception in 2013 until April 2016. The study will be published in Health Marketing Quarterly this fall.

"We concluded that hospitals are true to the marketing objective of 'winning the hearts' of healthcare consumers by using patients in the main model in ads," said Caichen Zhong, one of the lead study authors and a researcher with Drexel's College of Nursing and Health Professions.

However, the study authors found few of the ads featured medical technology or specialized procedures that could help hospitals to differentiate themselves. Additionally, hospital branding was not a main feature of most of the ads.

"We believe that hospital advertising creative teams may be using the same 'playbook' and sticking to traditional and safe attributes, using patients and health professionals most," said study co-author and clinical professor in Drexel's College of Nursing and Health Professions Stephen Gambescia, PhD. "There is nothing wrong with using 'high touch' advertising attributes and focusing on patients," Dr. Gambescia added. "But it flies in the face of a primary marketing principle: Differentiating yourself from your competitors."

The researchers analyzed 168 ads, looking to determine what attributes were emphasized in each of the ads. The researchers divided the analysis into primary impressions and secondary impressions, meaning they looked at what stood out at a reader first, then determined whether that signified words or images.

In one ad about a cardiac care unit, a large, main image featuring a middle-aged man was considered to be the first impression, classified as a "patient." If the hospital's logo were the next aspect noticed, the researchers would mark "brand" as the secondary impression.

The researchers found the most-used primary attribute overall was "patients," which appeared in over one-thirds (35 percent) of the ads. The next was "health professionals" at 27 percent. On the other end, "technology" and "procedures" were primary attributes of only 4 and 3 percent of the ads, respectively. 

"Hospital — and higher-ed — ads are the result of an amalgamation of internal marketing folks, an external creative team and, ideally, some subject-matter person who knows about the product or service," Dr. Gambescia said. "That latter person is often left out."

Although it may not provide an all-encompassing solution, Dr. Gambescia feels the ads could begin to be differentiated with added voice from those outside the typical marketing team.

"They may know just enough to spot something that may be more aligned with the reality of the product or resonate with the audience," he said.

Dr. Gambescia aims to investigate whether this lack of attention in ads, particularly in addressing population health, is due to hospitals' marketing strategy or whether it indicates the organizations are ignoring an important part of their mission.

"We need to learn why they are totally averse to saying anything about population health, or whether they just don't realize they are not messaging this way," Dr. Gambescia concluded.

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