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Understanding Pity.

marketing madnessI see a lot of marketing materials from various diabetes organizations, publications, and websites.  The messages are varied, to say the very least.  They're all are asking for your support, most often financially, to either raise awareness of diabetes or march towards a cure.  That much is definite.

The variances are to be expected, though.  This disease doesn't follow many rules.

The curious thing to me, after having seen hundreds of these materials, is how different companies chose to portray diabetes.  Some companies show the 53 year old man sitting next to a dialysis machine.  Others show a small child, running in a playground, smiling despite their diagnosis. A crying child being injected in the arm with a syringe, clutching their teddy bear?  A smiling, healthy-looking person testing their blood sugar?  Or a sullen, sad person taking their medications as a tear of hopelessness runs down their face? 

Mixed messages ranging from "I can do anything!" to "I can't do a damn thing."  Ah, the many faces of diabetes.

I can understand the "pity ploy," because if you show the face of a small, hopeful child with their whole life of promise ahead of them, it's a bit easier to ask for money.  "How can you sit there and not help the children," sort of endeavor.  From what I've seen, people don't feel as pressed to donate towards a cause that shows images of people living healthy lives with diabetes.  It's the proverbial pain and suffering that draws people in and tugs at their wallet. 

It's just a strange thought that portraying myself - ourselves- as healthy people may actually keep people from supporting our cause.  "She doesn't need our help.  See, she's just fine with her insulin pump and exercise regimen and doctors.  She's fine." 

What these marketing documents can't convey is the constant thread of "make sure you" that runs through my mind. 

Make sure you bring your meter in case you need to test.  Make sure you have juice and insulin, for either a high or a low blood sugar flip.  Make sure you go to the doctor to have your A1c taken to keep you on track.  Make sure you have a job with good medical insurance so you can afford all the supplies you need.  Make sure you have friends and family who can support you on your journey with this disease.  Make sure you don't overindulge/undereat/over-compensate/under-estimate. 

Make sure.

I'm confused at times, because while I'm young and healthy and in control now, I wonder what my future will hold for me.  I hope I'll always be healthy.  But I'm never sure.  I can't really "make sure."  I can just keep trying.  And hoping.

Can marketing materials tap that uncertainty?  Can they show the efforts we put forth to acheive good health?  What kind of picture or tagline or template would they use to show our lives?


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I love this post. I agree that those commercials never get it quite right. It is almost as if, all of those D-Folk they show should be shown at the same time so people can see how each of us deals with every aspect of this disease.

My D commercial would be like a Calgon ad. "CALGON! TAKE ME AWAY!"

The biggest issue is the fact that the people with diabetes have allowed diabetes organizations, publications, websites and companies to define us, rather than having patients define how our condition should be depicted. The mixed messages stem, in large part, from our own uncertainties. Although we want to view everything as positive and bright-eyed, the reality may not be so certain. Even extraordinary control does not guarantee that complications will not occur; the DCCT showed that although intensified glucose management dramatically reduced the likelihood of complications, it still failed to completely eliminate them.

Then there are the rules of managing this condition, where 1+1 occasionally equals 2, but just as often equals 0.5 or maybe even 10! I cannot think of a better way to depict things than with the vastly differing messages. The real question, for a vendor anyway, is knowing who your audience is, and this is where many pharmaceutical companies fail because they simply don't bother to find out.

The media should interview all of us...they'd get a better picture and a clear message to send !!

Wow, great post, Kerri. You really captured the ambiguity of trying (and mostly succeeding) to be a "healthy diabetic."

I'm not surprised that the media doesn't get it quite right. I have trouble with it myself.

I want people to know what Riley goes through on a daily basis and what may lie around the bend for him. But, I don't want them to feel sorry for him.

He is OK, after all. But, then, if he's OK, then why should they donate money to find a cure?

It's all very hard to articulate.

I had to deal with this exact same thing last fall. When Danielle won the trip to Ottawa (parliament hill) with the JDRF to rally them for more funding - we were put in the public spotlight - locally. We had tv reporters and cameras at our house, we had radio interviews, we had newspaper interview and photographs.

What did I want the public to see? Did I want to put my kid on display for pity purposes, or did I want them to see that despite the fact that she has Type 1 - she's healthy? Would that image be a negative for support? Would making her life seem so sad be more productive?

It wasn't a nice position to be in.

In the end, I told it like it was. I said she was doing well, but that she did have to endure "x" number of pokes and "x" number of injections per day and she had to endure the highs and lows that come with this disease (literally and figuratively).

Unfortunately, it IS the "oh my poor child" image that does tug at people's heart strings and pocketbooks. I want them to donate to research, but I don't want any pity for my child.

It's a mixed thing.

Hi Kerry,

Your posts always hit the nail head on. I don't even think its possible to convey the 'make sure you' or 'just in case' that we live with every second of every day. It's hard enough to explain to people around me that kind of get it, let alone to the masses.
And, if it's pity that gets people to donate or volunteer or help out in any way, I can't say no to that (as irritating as that is).


Thank you for this post.

I have never hid the fact that I have diabetes from those around me, but I have a hard time figuring out what I think is an acceptable response. I get a lot of "But you take really good care of yourself, so it's okay, right?" In some ways I feel statements like that belittle all the thought and effort I put into this. And is it okay, really? I don't know. On the other hand, some people start gushing "Oh my, I am so sorry. That's too bad!" That irks me too. I don't want to be the object of pity.

I think the word AmyT used was ambiguity and I think it fits to a T.

Totally not related to your post, but I was exploring your sidebar today and ended up listening to the podcast from diabetes powershow. Funny - I had a totally different voice for you! :)
Very interesting conversation though ...

Excellent thoughts, Kerri.

Yes, we may take care of ourselves and we may seem healthy, but is that really any reason for both types to HAVE to continue down the path in order to survive? It's still a difficult path to navigate.

On the personal scene, I want Brendon to be unhindered by diabetes....to play and dream as though he didn't have it.

On the public scene, I want outsiders to understand what a burden it is to have diabetes and the way it threatens his health every minute of the day.

I want people to understand that it is life threatening.

Diabetes is such a unique condition in that on the outside all is well most of the time, but on the inside and on some occasions on the outside, diabetes rears it's ugly head without mercy.

Kerri—I compliment you for the speed at which you have arrived at this “Eureka moment” in your adventure with diabetes. It took me much longer to recognize the “pity vs healthy” dilemma we face. For decades, I believed (or wanted to believe) that those with power—our charitable advocates, our research scientists, and yes, even industry—cared about us, not just about our money. But over time, I realized that (1) the squeaky wheel gets the grease, (2) diabetics, as a whole, just are not squeaky enough to elicit attention or funding, and (3) becoming squeakier may produces unintended consequences (e.g. restricted driver’s licenses, mandatory compliance oversight, etc.) So, we have settled for quietly supporting cure research, but have diminishing hopes that any significant portion of the funds we raise actually reach the researchers. I would hope that newer, younger diabetics—who have so speedily recognized this dilemma—can offer some “outside-the-box” thinking that will demand answers and find a cure.

Wow! What an insightful post. Anyone who believes that the insulin cartel, our favorite charities, or anyone in government really will be instrumental in finding a cure for diabetes should take a look at the recent Katrina response. Diabetics are very much like those victims: a N.O. resident without money or transportation was in a Catch 22 position. Trying to elicit support BEFORE the hurricane hit smacked of helpless fearmongering. After the fact, however, pleas for support are encompassed in a gigantic maelstrom of confusion, where a single voice is unhearable. The victim may be filled with “shoulda, coulda woulda” emotions, but in essence, is impotent to help himself or others. There is no way the general public can put themselves in the position of a N.O. victim—nor of a diabetic.

The “cure” (cures) for all forms of diabetes will probably not come through charitable donations, government research or institutions developed to take care of diabetes. The cure for diabetes will come from some innovative, caring, committed researcher who recognizes the world we live in, and probably from outside the U.S., where researchers are only beginning to experience the erosion of scientific methodology that money/power can cause . The important point here is, “Will he or she be allowed to survive long enough to bring a cure forward?”

My last doctor was so upset when I questioned him about treatment proposals that he finally told me, “Diabetes is a malignant disease, and so far, protocols have done nothing but extend and improve “quality of life” for a period of time.” This was just before he handed be a 6-pack of Lexapro, told me to moderate my mood and schedule my next appointment with his receptionist.

I can't comment on the ads, as I'm not in the US, but your post reminded me of something that happened recently that made me think about this whole issue of how we want people to view diabetes.

I was talking to a guy I met recently, and I casually dropped the news that I had diabetes into the conversation.
Stop. Rabbit in the headlights expression. Awkward silence. Then he just carried on talking about something else as if nothing had happened. It was quite obvious that he had no idea what to say. Like I'd told him there had just been a death in my family.

It was such a little thing but it annoyed the hell out of me. I want people to understand the impact this disease has on my life, but I don't think it warrants the same response as, "Oh by the way, I only have six months to live"!
The problem is finding exactly where to draw the line between, "This is so awful!" and "Well, it's actually not that bad!"

Great post.

I like G-Money's idea of showing all of us, all at the same time. It would capture the spectrum of things.

I don't know how it would work or look, but if it ever happened, it would be the first damned honest portrayal of diabetes in the mainstream public sphere I've ever seen.

I like this post too! Some days my feelings actually do range from "I can do anything" to "I can't do a damn thing". I see a lot of marketing that shows children, but not much showing that type 1 doesn't go away. "Here's the 7 year old we showed you 30 years ago...let's catch up with her now". I'd like to see that.

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