Dementia – more than a brand? Lessons from #sharetheorange

In my second book, ‘Living better with dementia‘, with forewords by Kate Swaffer, Chris Roberts and Beth Britton, I discussed in my conclusion the branding of dementia. This discussion runs in parallel with the ‘there’s big money in dementia’ chapter in Kate Swaffer’s landmark book ‘What the hell happened to my brain‘, published only this thursday. In this groundbreaking book, Kate has discussed her life ‘beyond dementia’ (TM).

In 2012, dementia became ‘not just a disease’. It in fact became a very strong brand. At roughly the same time, Dementia Friends became a trademark on the UK trademark register. Further contemporaneously, senior people started giving talks in expensive conferences about ‘making opportunities’ in dementia. Indeed, high street companies which could demonstrate that they were ‘dementia friendly’ were achieving a considerable competitive advantage in marketing terms, whether or not they were genuinely dementia friendly. That is how ‘nudge’ in customer behaviour works in behavioural economics.

Not overselling myself either, but I happened to come top of the year in marketing in my own MBA. This I think is because my first degree was in cognitive neuroscience, so I have a longstanding interest in the relationship between cognition and behaviour. It seems that trademarks have become more than products and services, and that brands have become more than the trademarks. I attended the launch of the new Dementia UK brand in London last year, and we were given an explanation of the meaning conveyed in colours in marketing (a subject very familiar to me from international marketing, as different colours can convey different meanings according to different cultures). It is no secret that the Alzheimer’s Society is undergoing an extensive rebranding at the moment. Branding can serve to consolidate core values with a core audience.

It is therefore no surprise at all that I am interested in the new Alzheimer’s Research UK campaign called #sharetheorange.

Damage caused by dementia can reduce the brain’s weight by the equivalent of an orange, according to the presenter Christopher Eccleston in a new digital campaign for Alzheimer’s Research UK. The campaign, created by AIS London and animated by Aardman, features an emotional plea for support for the charity from the actor, whose father died from vascular dementia after fourteen years.

It uses stop-motion, the familiar technique used by Aardman Animations in Wallace and Gromit, to demonstrate how the disease attacks the brain.

“Like many of you, I’ve witnessed the devastating effects of dementia. But because many people think dementia is just a natural part of aging, they don’t realise that is something that we could one day defeat.”

The text commences with the tension between the public health message ‘it is possible to live well with dementia’ and the imagery of dementia as ‘devastating’. I myself discuss the use of the term ‘dementia sufferers’ in my discussion, and how use of negative imagery can add to the stigma and discrimination faced by people with dementia and carers – even delaying the seeking of a diagnosis, often conveniently blamed by ‘big charity’ as a fault of the medical profession. But it is useful to reinforce the idea that dementia is not a natural part of aging, and the phrase that it is “something that we could one day defeat” reinforces the war and battle imagery of ‘fighting dementia’, a slogan used by a number of Big Charity organisations. You never hear of people who have ‘won their battle against dementia’ – but then again you rarely hear of people trying to live their lives to the full in the mainstream media, with one or two striking exceptions, as that ‘does not sell copy’. Such use of “shock tactics”, in the context of a shock doctrine, is well known for subverting decision making down a particular track.

“I’m asking you to do one little thing on behalf of Alzheimer’s Research UK – just to share this film about an orange. You see the truth is dementia is actually caused by diseases just like cancer or AIDS. Alzheimer’s disease is the biggest cause of dementia. It physically attacks your brain, gradually destroying it, piece by piece, stripping away everything that makes you.. until you die.”

I found this particularly interesting. There are over 120 different types of dementia, depending on how you count them. The “Alzheimerisation” of all dementias is a long running theme in dementia, though it is true that Alzheimer’s disease is the most common cause of dementia worldwide. In practical terms, one is more likely to be fundraising for a lab investigating a type of Alzheimer’s disease, than any of the numerous other types of dementia.

Heather Wright, Executive Producer & Head of Partner Content at Aardman has been reported as saying:

“Animation is a great way of communicating difficult messages, delivering them in an easily understandable and memorable way. Using the orange as a metaphor for the brain makes this film very strong because the idea and the execution work perfectly together.”

But Eccleston continues:

“It physically attacks your brain gradually destroyed it piece by piece by piece until it strips away everything that makes you you and then you don’t in fact the brain of a person with Alzheimer’s is so damaged it weighs a hundred and forty grams less than a healthy brain.”

The starting point that the dementias are diseases of the brain is important, and is indeed this is one of the core five messages of “Dementia Friends”. But the imagery is scary, and potentially a bit of a kick in the groin to those 47 million people in the world currently living with dementia.

Whilst the ad builds up to hope for the future, my concern is identifying the current offering for people currently living with dementia. To use the orange analogy, how can you best use the segments which are left to go about your day to day life?

There are some people – like me in fact – who feel that self and identity are preserved, despite a dementia ‘disease process’, until the very end. The film makes the assumption that there is a direct link between loss of brain structural matter and overall loss of function, which is of course generally true, but there are 1000 billion neurones in the brain, many of which are in fact redundant. This redundancy therefore lends weight to the notion of cognitive resilience, and indeed is embedded in the prevention arm of policy, as education building up a buffer in some against dementia: otherwise known as “use it or lose it”. One presumes that future therapies which are effective at stopping ‘in its tracks’  the build up of toxic substances in the brain in Alzheimer’s disease prevent loss of volume of the brain (a direct link which has never been robustly shown, though intuitively correct.)

Eccleston continues,

“While scary this does prove it’s a physical disease and not just part of aging research has beaten diseases in the past and with your help research can defeat dementia so place to share the orange.”

I suppose that there’s more than one way to peel an orange.

I am mindful here of the ‘Lovewarks’ theme from Saatchi and Saatchi, and the work of Kevin Roberts.

In an article in Journal of Advertising Research in March 2006, John Pawle wrote,

“Once such theory of modem branding is the theory of “Lovemarks” as put forward by Kevin Roberts (2004), CEO of Saatchi & Saatchi. Roberts states that the idea of a brand is starting to “wear thin” and the world around it sterile.”

Pawle characterises these “lovewarks” as  “giving birth to great stories; bring the past, present, and future together; tap into people’s dreams; celebrate myths and icons; and inspire.”

Emotional memory is processed in a very different way to memory for facts and events in the brain. Stating the obvious, your cognitive processing is very much dependent on your state of arousal and motivation. This, ironically, is an observation very well known to people living with dementia as well as their significant others.

So therefore one would legitimately expect the success of this present digital ad campaign to be governed by the efficacy of the interaction of the viewer with the subject matter (high). This would make them want to “#sharetheorange”, in an ideal world making the ad ‘go viral‘.

So – at least people are talking about dementia – raising awareness of dementia. All of us in policy have our individual views about whether ‘it’s the right type of awareness’.

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