Systemic racism occurs in practically all American institutions, but is perhaps nowhere more insidious than in healthcare, where poor outcomes can often literally mean the difference between life and death.
The pandemic further illuminated this truth, proving health equity is still not a reality in the U.S. Social determinants of health have long prevented people of color from attaining fair opportunities for economic, physical and emotional health—and indeed, many racial and ethnic minority groups were more at risk of getting sick and dying from Covid-19 throughout the past year.
Brands and agencies, though, are slowly coming to terms with the underlying racism in the health industry. And a number of campaigns that won trophies at this year's Clio Health Awards help point the way forward in changing the narrative.
Walt Geer, executive creative director at VMLY&R, was chair of the Digital/Mobile, Direct, Experience/Activation, Public Relations, Social Media and Creative Use of Data jury at this year's Clio Health Awards. He is guardedly optimistic that many of the Clio Health winners show progress, but warns there is much more to do.
"The fact that we die at alarming rates, way higher rates than most non-people of color, is something most of us have already known," he says. "Systemic racism and bias have been woven into the healthcare system. It was good to see agencies and brands come forward and start having the uncomfortable conversations. But it's not good enough to go externally and say, 'Hey, we need to fix this. This is a problem,' but not even be doing it within your own house. We need to be authentic about our approach and make sure it's not just for dress-up."
Below, we take a closer look at six Clio Health winners from 2020-2021 that address healthcare and the Black community, with thoughts from Walt and several other Clio Health jurors.
ACCHO, 'The Care Salon'
Agency: Public Inc.
Silver Clio: Experience/Activation
Due to social and systematic barriers, African, Caribbean and Black women in Ontario are disproportionality testing positive for HIV. The challenge was to encourage these women to get tested for HIV/AIDS and know their status. So, Public Inc. created "The Care Salon," a pop-up activation at local hair salons, where point-of-care testing would be offered to patrons in the salon that day.
By including HIV testing in a broader message about self-care, the campaign addressed barriers around accessibility, education and the stigma around getting tested. Too often, Black women face the unfair burden of the role of "caregiver." The Care Salon created an experience where self-care is a priority in a way it's never been.
"Not many people really understand the significance of the Black salon and the Black barbershop," says Geer. "For Black people, these locations are a home away from home. They're places where we engage one another like family. And so, to be able to take a topic like HIV—a disease that does impact a lot of Black women—and bring it into these places is important, because it's a place that actually matters."
He adds: "It's one thing to show me a commercial on TV. It's another thing if I see it on a billboard or on the subway. It's a completely different approach when you bring a message into these places where people are having very deep and personal conversations. For Black people, that's a no-brainer, right? But for people who aren't Black, it might be difficult to understand why that matters. If you're going to impact a community or talk directly to a community, this is how you do it."
EmpowHer NY, 'The Call'
Agency: The Bloc
Gold Clio, Film
Silver Clio, Branded Entertainment & Content
Silver Clio, Creative Effectiveness
Silver Clio, Public Relations
Silver Clio, Social Media
Bronze Clio, Audio
When it comes to getting proper healthcare, it shouldn't matter how white or Black your name and voice sound. But in 2020, it unfortunately still does. "The Call" exposed the reality that women of color all too often receive lesser treatment than their white counterparts—by revealing just how different outcomes can be, even when patients present the same symptoms.
"People underestimate that racism in healthcare has a correlation to outcomes like mortality rates and treatment initiation. That's why 'The Call' is so important," says Danielle Decatur, associate creative director at H4B Chelsea and a juror on Clio Health's Film, Out of Home and Print jury. "We have to start raising awareness of these important issues so more people have access to life-saving or disease-altering treatments. Health advertising agencies should be thinking and encouraging clients to find a way to use creativity to solve for health inequity. There is a lot of education that needs to be done, and creativity is the way to do it so that it sticks."
"I often say to folks, look, if you tell a story by way of data—and everyone wants data, right?—you're just looking at numbers on a page," adds Geer. "When you have someone sit in front of you and say, 'Let me tell you how this affected me' or 'Let me tell you about how my mom or my brother, how my sister, my child died,' that's a completely different approach. What this did was truly shed a light on an issue by actually showing you the difference when someone calls up and sounds like a person of color. You see it and you hear it, and it allows you to say, 'My God, that is a real issue.' "
NBCDI, 'ABC's of Survival'
Agency: The Bloc
Gold Clio, Direct
Silver Clio, Design
Silver Clio, Digital/Mobile & Social Media Craft
Silver Clio, Digital/Mobile
Silver Clio, Print & Out of Home Craft (Art Direction)
Silver Clio, Print & Out of Home Craft (Copywriting)
Silver Clio, Print
Silver Clio, Social Media (Single Platform)
Silver Clio, Social Media (Social Post)
Bronze Clio, Design Craft (Image Creation)
Bronze Clio, Design Craft (Writing for Design)
Born from the creative minds of parents Shamel and Tiffany Washington in the wake of the tragic events of the summer of 2020, The ABC's of Survival makes "the talk" tangible. Eight months in the making, the book debuted the the first day of Black History Month in 2021. Every page was created with the help of Black parents and BIPOC experts from different fields, including Allyson Jones, head of community mobilization and resource development at the NBCDI.
Its pages are an alphabet of lessons for BIPOC youth on how to survive—from being aware of your environment and how to interact with the police, to the power of protest, and loving yourself and those around you. This book that should not exist is designed to be torn apart to take action—with tear-out protest posters, and postcards to send to Congress.
"Working in advertising, we get to tell stories for a living. I wanted to use the professional resources I have to tell a story that is personal, yet very relevant to the times," says Shamel Washington, who worked on the project at The Bloc. "Injustice is a hard pill to swallow—I've been unjustly arrested before—it is our reality. We must educate our youth and provide them with actual tools to take action now."
"I loved this one for a lot of reasons," says Geer. "I'm sure it was time consuming to pull in all those different artists to do each piece. But what was beautiful about that is, again, it's tackling a real-world issue. The sad part is that we'd actually need something that shows you how to be safe. But I think it speaks volumes to other people, putting them in that moment of 'I've never seen that' or 'It's never happened to me.' "
EmpowHer NY, 'Skindeep'
Agency: The Bloc
Silver Clio, Design Craft
Silver Clio, Film
Silver Clio, Film Craft
Silver Clio, Social Media
Bronze Clio, Digital/Mobile & Social Media Craft
Inspired by true events and co-written with Dr. Robert Carter, professor of psychology at Columbia University, Skindeep is a short animated film that uncovers the story of racial trauma beneath personal experiences. The film illustrates, for the first time, the full impact of systematic racism on people's mental health, particularly women of color.
"Skindeep stood out to me for so many reasons," says Cass Zawadowski, executive creative director at Wunderman Thompson Canada and a member of Clio Health's Film, Out of Home and Print jury. "From the get-go, the craft was mesmerizing. The hand-painted animation was absolutely the right punctuation to an already very emotional story. Secondly, I learned a lot. This film opened my eyes to race and healthcare and made me realize that we should absolutely be thinking of racism as a healthcare issue. That said, I think there's an opportunity for healthcare agencies to partner with their clients to bring more stories to the forefront of their communications and advertising. It is through understanding and acknowledgement that we will see change."
'The Trial for Clinical Equality'
Agency: FCB Health New York
Bronze Clio: Design
African Americans represent 13 percent of the U.S population yet they make up just 3 percent of patients in oncology trials. Hispanics are 19 percent of the U.S population yet only 6 percent of patients in oncology trials. Clinical trials are often the only way someone with advanced cancer can survive. To inspire the healthcare community to act, "The Trial for Clinical Equality" campaign was created and robustly launched across digital platforms. The stark black-and-white visuals, combined with intense expressions on the faces of these real people, further pushed an emotional connection that brought to life the depth and gravity of this very human, and very immense issue.
"For us, this issue is black-and-white. We wanted the creative to reflect that," says FCB Health New York chief creative officer Kathleen Nanda. "The starkness of the palette, the provocative copy and the intensity of the facial expressions give the work an emotional punch, bringing to life the depth and gravity of this very human issue."
"FCB Health Network is committed to equitable care for all, and through our work with our clients, we're committed to developing behavior-changing messaging to that effect," adds FCB Health Network CEO and president Dana Maiman. "Our agencies united to unleash the power of their creativity to inspire change, and now we are calling on institutions and advocacy groups to stand with us. This is just the beginning."
"When you talk about doing campaigns targeting people of color, often a brand can't put people of color in the work because they know they didn't test many of them," says Geer. "A perfect example is a vaccine. Black people want to make sure, was this tested on people like me? Because we have a history with this country of how we were treated in the medical field. There is a lack of trust in the Black community around doctors who don't look like them. It is such an important topic when we start to talk about clinical trials and ensuring Black people are actually part of them."
TBWA\WorldHealth, 'Black Health Now'
Agency: TBWA\WorldHealth U.S.
Clio Health shortlist: Public Relations
#BlackHealthNow is an ongoing initiative to address racial bias within the healthcare system that leads to poor health outcomes for Black Americans. Before Covid-19, before the George Floyd protests, during Black History Month 2020, Black employees at TBWA\WorldHealth filmed and shared personal stories of racial bias in the healthcare system to provoke discussion in the U.S. and around the world.
When the pandemic and George Floyd protests hit, the campaign expanded to a series of self-help and motivational livestreams featuring celebrities, politicians, essential workers and medical experts to help Black Americans.
Lastly, Geer emphasizes the importance of having diverse juries during advertising awards season, to guard against the unconscious bias that can happen there, too.
"The biggest thing is diversity," he says. "I have a 13 percent rule. Anytime anyone asks me to speak or be on a jury or a keynote, I want 13 percent of the individuals involved to be Black, just to match the U.S. population. But if we're talking about judging awards, I don't know if that is enough. These rooms need to be even more diverse to ensure people are able to see both sides of the story."
He adds: "You can have a bias that's built-in. Sometimes it's a subconscious bias—you see something that doesn't interest you because it's targeted at people of color, you don't like it, or you don't understand it, and you vote it out. We need to have a way of guarding against that, of bringing work back that's unfairly thrown out. It can be up to the jury chair, or the award show itself. But we need to make sure bias isn't killing work at shows that deserves to be awarded."