Finding a Way to Talk About a Disquieting Condition


Published: January 7, 2013,  New York Times

A NEW print ad by the Crohn’s and Colitis Foundation of America shows a closed bathroom stall, with the gap below the door revealing the enormous clown shoes of the occupant. “I.B.D. is no laughing matter,” says the headline.

Screen shot 2013-01-10 at 2.32.03 PM

“If you have inflammatory bowel disease (I.B.D.), life can feel like a three-ring circus,” continues a block of text. “Chances are, you know one of the nearly 1 in 200 Americans who suffers from the debilitating pain and constant disruptions that come with Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis.” 

Other stall-door ads show a shin-to-floor view of a woman in a wedding dress (“I.B.D. gave her a day she’ll never forget”), Santa Claus (“I.B.D. doesn’t care if you’ve been naughty or nice”) and a young girl whose feet don’t reach the floor (I.B.D. can make growing up a real pain”).

Screen shot 2013-01-10 at 2.32.22 PM

While the photos and headlines sound a note of whimsy, the text below the ads is decidedly serious, all of them noting, “The physical and emotional toll can be devastating.”

The public service ads encourage readers to learn more about Crohn’s disease by visiting a microsite,, which has been created for the campaign. The pro bono effort is by the New York office of DraftFCB, part of the Interpublic Group of Companies.

In a commercial for the campaign, the viewer hears, “Chances are you know someone with I.B.D.” The voice turns out to be that of the actress Amy Brenneman  (“Judging Amy” and “Private Practice”), who says near the end of the spot, “Someone like me.”

The organization hopes that the public service announcement will run widely on television and in movie theaters. Other elements for the campaign include billboards and ads online and in airports. Ads printed on transparent adhesive film will even appear on mirrors in public restrooms.

The nonprofit group projects that it will secure from $20 million to $23 million in donations of broadcast and print advertising over the next year. But it did not initially want to show bathrooms in its campaign.

“We really started this campaign by saying we wanted to stay away from the bathroom, because we thought the bathroom would underrepresent our disease,” said Richard Geswell, the president of the Crohn’s and Colitis Foundation.

Along with needing to evacuate frequently, symptoms of Crohn’s disease, a chronic inflammatory condition of the gastrointestinal tract, include abdominal pain, rectal bleeding, fevers, weight loss and extreme fatigue.

“I was worried that our patients might think it was too lighthearted, and some aren’t in public restrooms because they can’t even leave the house,” said Mr. Geswell, who added he was won over by the new campaign, which he said struck the right tone and would spur awareness.

Rich Levy, chief creative officer of DraftFCB Healthcare, said, “When we first started this project, the last thing we wanted to do is what I’d call bathroom humor.” But he said that although the campaign was set in restrooms and had whimsical notes, its impact aimed to be more profound.

“What was the universal truth was that behind those doors are thousands and thousands of people who are suffering, and you don’t know who they are, but they know who they are,” said Mr. Levy.

Although the Crohn’s and Colitis Foundation was founded in 1967, only 18.7 percent of Americans have heard of the group, according to a survey commissioned by the group.

As for Crohn’s disease itself, the survey found that 44 percent of respondents knew at least a little about the disease, below the number familiar with diabetes (86 percent), multiple sclerosis (58 percent) and lupus (46 percent).

Mr. Geswell, the foundation president, said that by raising awareness about Crohn’s, his group hoped that along with helping those who don’t know they have the disease, it would help others understand that friends and relatives might be too embarrassed to disclose their condition.

“Aunt Sally who never left the house or came to social occasions” may, far from meaning to snub her family, “turn out to have had Crohn’s or ulcerative colitis,” Mr. Geswell said. Some with Crohn’s disease must visit the bathroom as much as 40 times a day, the foundation says.

Carol Cone, co-author of “Breakthrough Nonprofit Branding” and managing director for brand and corporate citizenship at Edelman, the public relations firm, acknowledged the challenge any agency would face with such an awareness campaign.

“How do you talk about bowels and bowel movements, and do it in a way that’s not so slight and flip that it’s not taken seriously?” said Ms. Cone.

After reviewing the new campaign, Ms. Cone was impressed.

“The way they showed the feet and footwear was a wonderful analogy that Crohn’s and colitis affects anybody in any walk of life,” Ms. Cone said. “This is a sophisticated, hip and modern branding campaign.”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s