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American Cancer Society pulls ad after criticism by Minnesota blogger

Minnesota-based health media watchdog (and former University of Minnesota health journalism professor) Gary Schwitzer — with some help from Newsweek health and science editor Mary Carmichael — appears to have been responsible for the American Cancer Society (ACS) pulling a new nationwide print and online ad last week.

Although calling the ad “well-intentioned,” Schwitzer wrote on his HealthNewsReview blog last Wednesday that the ad was “too vague, and, therefore, may leave impressions that are imbalanced, incomplete and unsubstantiated — the kind of common tactic seen in many drug company ads.”

Or, as Carmichael noted in Newsweek’s Human Condition blog later that day, the ad is “so vague that it can be read as cheerleading for all types of screening and promoting medical practices that aren’t supported by science.”

ACS launched the ad as part of a new campaign to raise money for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s admirable 20-year-old National Breast and Cervical Cancer Early Detection Program, which provides breast and cervical cancer screening exams to low-income and uninsured women. The program is currently short of funds and can help only about 20 percent of the women who are eligible for its services.

But, as Schwitzer pointed out, the ad didn’t specifically mention the CDC program (except in a rather oblique way). “Instead,” he wrote,” the ad promotes unspecified screening — all screening, one could infer. … Are we talking about prostate screening? Lung cancer CT scan screening? Ovarian cancer screening? Show me where it does NOT say that.”

Here’s the ad:

The vagueness of the ad’s language matters, wrote Carmichael, “because in some cases — prostate-cancer screening based on PSA levels and mammograms for women under 50 being the most prominent examples — it’s unclear who should get screened and how great the benefits or harms for an individual may be. Yes, screening is a way of seeing, but with some techniques and diseases, it can be a little like peering through smudged glasses. An imperfect cancer-screening tool may identify ‘tumors’ that turn out to be nothing to worry about — in medical parlance, it’s not specific enough. Or it may miss tumors that really are cause for concern — it’s not sensitive enough. … [T]his ad could easily lead people to think they should get as many screens as possible, as often as they can, and that’s the kind of thinking that leads to possible medical harm and high health-care costs.”

Schwitzer also criticized the ad’s statement that “60% of cancer deaths could be prevented.” “The implication,” Schwitzer wrote, “is that’s all from screening because screening is the only prevention method mentioned in the ad. Nothing about stop smoking or other lifestyle changes. If the ad meant to imply that 60% of cancer deaths could be prevented just from screening, it should provide the evidence for that. If the ad did not mean to imply that, but was just misleadingly vague, then I call for the ACS to pull this ad. In either case, I think they have a problem.”

The ACS quickly decided it did have a problem. On Thursday — only a day after Schwitzer and Carmichael wrote their criticisms — the cancer organization pulled the ad. “It would be unfortunate if, in trying to raise awareness about this critical issue, a brief, powerful message in the ad became the story rather than the issue itself,” said an ACS spokesperson, Schwitzer reported.

As the ACS develops a new ad for the campaign, they might want to consider Carmichael’s excellent rewrite of the original copy:

We can fight cancer if we’re sure it’s what we see…
When it comes to cancer, screening is seeing — but it’s not always 20/20. CDC programs save lives through some screening tests that accurately detect cancer early. Current funding for these isn’t enough. But access to evidence-based prevention is just one part of the fight to detect cancer. And some screens may see tumors where they don’t exist or overlook them where they do. We also need funding to design better screening tools. It’s time to take the blindfolds off – and to correct our vision.

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