Biotechnology firm Genentech and its agency 21Grams recently accepted the challenge of creating an online comedy/reality series about hemophilia, a genetic disorder that impairs the body's ability to produce blood clots, increasing the risk of dangerous bleeding.
Entertainer and comedian Justin Willman—who's hosted shows on the Disney Channel and Food Network—fronts Challenge Accepted, which dropped on YouTube last week. Each of the first three episodes runs about 15 minutes, drawing inspiration, we're told, from Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee and Queer Eye.
In the fast-paced installments, Willman hangs out with hemophilia patients and their families, introducing experts and celebrities who dispense tips about navigating life. There's lots of self-consciously zany humor, and Willman, who stars in Magic for Humans on Netflix, performs silly (but often impressive) tricks.
In the episode below, we meet Devon, a teenager with hemophilia type-A severe, and Mark Skinner, past president of the World Federation of Hemophilia. Some scenes take place at a senior center, reflecting the theme of growing older with the condition and handling medical, financial and emotional issues that may arise. A wacky bingo segment—"G: glaucoma!" "I: infected hang nail!"—ranks among the highlights:
Despite the potentially life-threatening nature of hemophilia, the emphasis here is on humor. It's as if the topic has been dealt with so seriously for so long, a change of pace was required. This overall lightness of tone makes the weighty moments exceedingly poignant. When Skinner assures a teary Devon that "bleeds are gonna happen" and tells him not to blame himself, you can feel their connection.
Later, Skinner says, "The hemophilia community to me is just like an extended family. Every time I walk into a room, I meet someone like you, or somebody else with hemophilia, I feel like I'm talking to a brother or somebody I've known." That assertion underscores the supportive vibe that drives the entire project.
"The issue we were facing was that everyone focuses on the physical side of hemophilia," 21Grams creative chief Frank Mazzola tells Muse. "Which makes sense, because it's a bleeding disorder, and that's what the medicine treats. But there's a huge social and emotional component of the disease—like strained relationships, unemployment, depression, and so on—that are often too uncomfortable to talk about. So people generally don't."
He adds, "But then you think about what really breaks the ice on social and emotional topics more than any other medium, and the answer is pretty clear—shows. Whether it's Ellen coming out on The Ellen Show, or gender inequality on The Simpsons, entertainment eases tension. Then we gather around and talk about it."
Next, Willman and survival expert Cody Lundin help 20-year-old hemophiliac Taylor escape his comfort zone in the not-so-great outdoors. Lundin explains that "nature is the great equalizer" and asks, "How can you ever know what you're capable of if you don't try something new every now and again?" Grown men dress up in bear suits, of course.
"Humor is a universal thing, no matter what condition you have, or what your challenges are," says Mazzola. "Not everything in health needs to be so heavy and sad and depressing. Laughter is the best medicine, and it's strange that we don't lean on it more, as another way to feel something, in health."
As for casting Willman, "we needed a host who had a really great balance of humor, empathy and quickness—who could deliver a joke at all the right times, keep things moving and entertaining, but also have a serious, heartfelt conversation," Mazzola says. "The cherry on top—we found out his first gig as a magician was for a local hemophilia chapter in St. Louis, when he was 12. Really amazing how things come around full circle."
In perhaps the most touching and unexpected spot, Top Chef's Graham Elliot cooks a gourmet meal for Mark and Jessica, harried parents who never get time for themselves. Two of their three boys struggle with hemophilia—and the youngsters wanted Mom and Dad to enjoy a special date night.
"We are really trying to reach two audiences—mainly boys and young men with hemophilia [the demographic this disease typically affects], and caregivers," says Suha Patel, principal for hemophilia marketing at Genentech. "No other group watches video content more than millennial males, and similarly, parents tend to spend more time online, consuming content, than non-parents."
She adds: "Our goal was to make something that felt consistent with the type of content they like to consume, rather than force our content or ads on them. The work was first screened with advocacy organizations, before reaching a broader audience. They were amazing in their support and reinforcement of what we believed all along—that this was an important, refreshing approach to taking on issues that just weren't being talked about enough or addressed."
Genentech's name doesn't appear until the end, and Hemlibra, its blood-clotting agent, is never mentioned. Keeping a low corporate profile and avoiding any overt sales pitch is probably a sound strategy, given the tendency of some folks to dismiss any form of mass-communications from Big Pharma as propaganda.
"As a new company within the hemophilia space, we wanted to earn the right to be part of the community," Patel says. "If you want to be a leader, you can't just say it—you have to act like one. Our actions are incredibly important in this world, and our responsibility isn't to 'sell' medicine; it is to help. Other than that, we really can't speak to what people may or may not say or feel. We can only say that Challenge Accepted comes from a place of good intentions."
Credits (Name, Company, Title, Role):
Chief Creative Officer
SVP, Creative Director, Copy
Creative Director, Head Writer, Co-Creator
SVP, Creative Director, Art
Creative Director, Art Director, Co-Creator
EVP, Group Account Director
SVP, Group Account Director
Principal, Hemophilia Marketing
Chief Executive Officer
Director of Photography