Edgy Heart and Stroke Ads Call on Women to “Make Death Wait”

by | November 17, 2011
filed under Can-Con, Feminism

Death loves the ladies - Heart and Stroke Foundation

When you’re a non-profit trying to raise awareness of a major health issue, it makes sense to think outside the box.

That’s the approach the Heart and Stroke Foundation has taken in its new “Make Death Wait” ad campaign. The TV portion of the campaign consists of two ad spots, one designed to announce the statistic that one in three people will die of heart disease, and another targeted at women to help them realize that heart disease is the number one killer of women.

The ad for women features a male voiceover that says, “I love women. I love older women, professional women…” over various images of women: a long shot of a woman by a pool, a younger woman running with her child in a stroller, an older woman dancing with her husband.

At the end of the ad, a female voice encourages us to “Make Death Wait,” to donate, and lets us know the stat about women’s risk for heart disease. It’s an edgy ad that is likely to get noticed and provoke a variety of reactions.

My reaction was to feel unsettled. I felt the distanced visuals made the disembodied male voice sound like a stalker. One of the images on the Heart and Stroke Foundation’s website reads: “Death Loves the Ladies” (above) only reinforced the creepy feeling for me.

But I know how important the issue is, so I wanted to see what others’ reactions were. I put the link to the ad up on Twitter and Facebook with no comment about my own opinion and asked people what they thought.

Turns out I wasn’t the only one who found the ad off-putting. One Twitter follower said, “[It’s] like they had a good idea at first (conversation about women’s risk) but degenerated into awful stalker ad.” She continued, “Also showed it to 2 female co-workers, neither of whom identify as strong feminists. Both hated it – stalker, rapist, creepy.”

A Facebook commenter replied, “Making death sound like a creepy humanized stalker? No thanks.”

“This gives the impression that the weird voyeur is eventually going to catch us. I cannot stress enough how uncomfortable that made me feel,” said another.

In addition, some commenters expressed concern that the ad stereotypes women by implying all women put their husbands and families first: “It reinforces the idea that women always put themselves last, and it also makes very heteronormative assumptions about women’s lives. What about single women, lesbians, those who may be partnered but not married, and so on?” asked a woman from Edmonton.

Though most of the commenters weren’t people I knew, I realize an informal survey of my social networks is not a scientific measure of public reaction. I also think the reaction could be generational, since the older women in my office tended to love the ad, conceding they felt it was creepy but necessary to get people to realize the importance of the issue. They felt it grabbed their attention and made them want to take action.

To better understand the ad’s goals, I spoke with Lisa Chicules, the vice president of marketing and communications for the Heart and Stroke Foundation. She said it was important for the Heart and Stroke Foundation to put out something that would grab attention because of how unrecognized women’s risk is.

“We wanted to make sure we were getting a message out to Canadians about the risk factors around heart disease and stroke. People felt risk wasn’t urgent and relevant. There was a perception versus reality issue and we needed to close that gap,” she said.

I asked her about some of the concerns I had with the ad, specifically the stalker factor. She said she had never heard that concern expressed and that it didn’t worry the organization.

“It was more about creating concern around the issue. More just to recognize you’re at risk. You have to use a powerful tool or it won’t be noticed. If we just came out and told women in a matter-of-fact way it doesn’t have the same impact in terms of capturing their attention,” Chicules said.

Chicules emphasized that the final ad and a range of other versions had gone through extensive testing to measure impact. The one that’s currently airing was deemed to be the most effective.

“I think part of it is to remember that our goal was to drive home the urgency of these diseases and we had to do it in a way that was powerful and impactful. Our research showed almost 50 per cent of women don’t know the fact and realize they’re at risk for heart disease. It should be 100 per cent. People don’t talk about it,” Chicules pointed out.

Regardless of people’s reaction to the ad, it looks like it will be sure to get people thinking more about the issue. I asked Chicules what women should do if they’re concerned about their risk for heart disease.

“I’m hoping women will say, ‘Oh my gosh, I had no idea I was at risk and I should do something about it.’ And the ‘do something’ could be a variety of things — go online and do a risk assessment, talk to your doctor, look for health information. And of course if you wanted to you could also donate,” she concluded.


(This article was also published at Huffington Post Canada)

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  • Jessica C.

    They could have used humor to get the message across. This ad with Elizabeth Banks isn’t perfect either– it’s still pretty hetero-normative and relies on the idea of women putting themselves first too, but it leaves me feeling threatened by heart disease instead of some man watching me.


  • Roo

    weird, I JUST saw this commercial the other day, and to be honest I thought it was really well done, cuz It totally grabbed my attention. It was super creepy and I was like ‘what the heck is gonna get her…who is this” and then when I realized it was heart stuff I was like “oh wow…I do normally think of men as being the one to have more heart attacks.” Totally a matter of opinion but I just wanted to share that I thought it was a good ad in that it caught my attention and then I learned something.

    • jarrahpenguin

      Totally. Like I said, some of the people I showed it to had the same reaction. The question about whether the ad’s worth is determined on effectiveness or message/tactic is one I don’t think there’s a firm answer to.

      For me when I learned in women and health class about women’s risk, that was enough to surprise me and get me thinking/acting. But maybe a straight educational ad wouldn’t have worked for everyone.

  • Tannis

    Would this ad or style or method what have you ever be used to get the attention of men? Would we see men as vulnerable and exposed and just waiting for prostate cancer or colon cancer to jump on them? I doubt it. The reason I doubt it is that it would not fit the stereotype of men who are seens as perpetrators of violence not victims. The ad steroetypes both men and women. Again, men as perpetrators of violence and women as helpless victims.

    The ad plays to the idea that women respond to threats of violence in their lives and that we understnad those fears and therefor may have an equivalent reaction to the fear of heart disease. Overall, the message is that if you are a women you are at risk and it’s up to you to protect yourself- from heart disease, but to use the threat of violence or death at the hands of an all powerful male figure, this makes me uncomfortable and it feels inappropriate.

    I also felt that it undermined our intelligence- “silly ladies- caring for your loved ones but so ignorant of your own health issues.”

    At the same time, the piece reflects real issues for women in that our health needs may not get the attention, support etc that they need and that we have agency to care for ourselves and protect our health.

    In conclusion, yes the piece draws attention, but by using stereotypes of power vs powerless, yet ends with the message that we can take charge over death. I think a follow up ad could have the character of death as a feeling weakened and impotent as he watches women eat brocolli and go jogging.

    • jarrahpenguin

      The foundation did do another ad featuring men, called “Death Loves These Guys”, but when I spoke to the organization they said it wasn’t a men’s ad – was just designed to show that 1 in 3 people will die of heart disease. It just happened to have only men in it.

      The other difference between that ad and the women’s one is that in the 1 in 3 ad the men all had names, were shot closer up, and it had a more humorous overtone.

      I love your suggestion for a follow-up ad. The representative from the H&S foundation told me she felt the first ad was empowering to women. I think that’s debatable, but a follow up like you suggested would really drive the empowering message home.

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  • Claude

    As a woman, I was horrified by this ad. I showed it to my husband and he too was appalled. The whole situation brings to mind a serial killer/stalker waiting to pounce. Given that the associate director of the H&S foundation of Canada (in charge of communications and messaging, among others) is/was married to the psychopath serial rapist and killer Russell Williams, we find this ad with its intention to instill fear and anxiety and manipulate women’s emotions beyond bad taste and disrespect, it is downright perverse. What is this association thinking? Is Russell Williams’ mentality growing on them? Donations????? They sure won’t get a penny from us. Oh, and for those who LOVE this type of emotional terrorism, how about giving a thought to the female (and other) victims of psychopathic violence? Education is not done through emotional rape. But this is not about education, is it? It’s about money…

  • Tara Brown

    I hate this commercial so much that I would pay just to keep it off the air.
    There is also a chicken commercial with the same voice over. Someone did not do their homework.

  • marion

    HI There….YUK…what taste….I see the commercial come on at night & I switch channels a.s.a.p…After that I go to bed and pray that I wake up !!! What a “instant fear” to put into people…I could have a Heart Attack or Stroke from watching it…

  • Priya7

    Very disturbing and creepy! I wont donate just for making me endure that annoying commercial every night!!!!!!!

  • No$4U

    Claude got it right. Considering that Mary Elizabeth Harriman of Heart and Stroke was simultaneously fighting in court to keep her name out of the news with regards to her convicted stalker, rapist, murderer husband, ex-colonel Russell Williams, the timing of this commercial campaign was bizarre. Williams’ habits included an interest in women of various ages, including young girls. What was H&S thinking? This campaign is perverse, sick, demented…did I leave anything out? Why would anyone want to donate to H&S, knowing that would involve giving H&S their name, address, phone number, etc.? Better for them NOT to have that information.

  • jarrahpenguin

    I don’t know that it’s appropriate to draw a connection between the H&S Associate Director and the content of the ad. Her situation was I’m sure horrific, but I doubt it actually factored into the decision of what messaging to use the ad. I’d take the H&S Foundation at their word that they were trying to do a good thing, but I think it ended up backfiring.