UPDATE: This post has generated legitimate criticism for suggesting that Walter White was (or should have been) a “poster boy” for lung cancer or that I was casting aspersions on the lung cancer community for not tying themselves more tightly with that element of the Breaking Bad storyline.
This was by no means the point I was trying to make, and I apologize for suggesting otherwise.
Given that lung cancer patients often already carry the unwarranted and harmful stigma that they “deserve” the disease, there is a strong argument drawing attention to a clear villain who happens to have lung cancer would have done little good and may have perpetuated an ongoing harm.
I am no great fan of hiding mistakes by editing (or excising) after the fact, so I’m keeping the post here, though removing the Walter White picture, which adds little to the discussion. The underlying data — that there was an enormous Breaking Bad-related spike and that the increase didn’t appear to leave anyone better educated about lung cancer — remain valid.
I am happy to top-post — or launch a separate post — with commentary from the lung cancer community. You may contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
One of the first steps we do when compiling the Social Oncology Project — our broad look at the online conversations around cancer, both by the public at large and by the physician community — is to graph the number of daily mentions of cancer for the year and then try to figure out why the graph spikes in certain places.
Some spikes are obvious. Breast Cancer Awareness Month creates a clear and extended increase in cancer conversations. Physician conversations rise around the American Society of Clinical Oncology meeting each year.
But this year, the biggest spike came just ahead of Breast Cancer Awareness Month. On Sept. 29, more than 120,000 news articles, forum posts, blog entries and tweets (mostly tweets) were recorded, three time what’s seen on an ordinary day. But there was no awareness push. No blockbuster news. No celebrity diagnosis.
As we dug further, we suddenly realized why cancer was on everyone’s mind: the night before, a fictitious character, Breaking Bad‘s Walter White, finally met his end in the series finale. Walt is pop culture’s most famous cancer patient, a man whose lung cancer started him down a path of meth-making.
But cancer was never really a part of the show. It drove the plot, to be sure, but Walt’s impending mortality was the MacGuffin of the series: a motivator whose specifics are otherwise unimportant. Not surprisingly, then, the cancer subplot did little to educate viewers, and it did little to prompt them to search for more information. Twitter mentions may have soared, but Wikipedia searches for “lung cancer” barely budged.
That’s one of the grand takeaways from this year’s Social Oncology Project report, which was published today: volume of conversation is a useful metric, but just because a topic is top-of-mind does not mean that it will change behavior. Communicators have to be able to not to just see the wave of interest, but surf it by providing additional context that will engage people. And that didn’t happen with Breaking Bad: there was little effort to use the series as a teachable moment.
Compare that to Angelina Jolie’s announcement, just over a year ago, of her decision to have a double mastectomy because of genetic risk. There was a spike in attention, to be sure, but interest didn’t die down. People searched for more information about the BRCA gene. They scoured the web for data on mastectomies. Major advocacy groups put out press releases offering their perspective on Jolie’s decision.
It’s not entirely fair to compare the detailed account of Jolie — a celebrity, to be sure, but a real person — with the exploits of a basic cable villain. But being opportunistic about cancer conversations makes solid sense. One of the least surprising findings of the Social Oncology Project 2014 was that coverage is hardly spread evenly among cancer types: breast cancer continues to dominate the conversation.
That means efforts to get attention for other cancer types might mean tying back to items about to have a moment in pop culture. (Are you ready to discuss the oncology issues raised by “The Fault in Our Stars“, opening Thursday? Might be time to think about it.) Taking communication clues from Hollywood might not be high science, but when it comes to making a point, it’s not a bad place to start.