Digital Marketing Marketing to Physicians

A COVID-19 Healthcare Marketing Fail

In this unprecedented time many traditional rules and norms of advertising have fallen by the wayside. It’s okay for car companies to run ads that don’t feature a single car or fast-food companies to have an ad without any food. But ads still need to be audience appropriate, carefully crafted and above all – sensitive to the current situation. Unfortunately, some companies have forgotten this.

Early last week, I saw a tweet from a Health IT company (who shall remain nameless) that made me almost fell out of my chair. Here it is (with the company name blotted out and with the tweet removed so as not to embarrass them):

The tweet that went along with this graphic suggested using the $1200 COVID-19 stimulus check on their software which had just been discounted.

I debated about writing this article for a week, because I wasn’t sure I wanted to call out this post. I don’t like to embarrass companies or single out specific marketing campaigns (I’ve had my own share of marketing gaffes). In the end I decided to go ahead because I wanted to use this as a learning opportunity. It’s so easy to fall into the trap of rushing to capitalize on an opportunity and it’s challenging to be whimsical during a time of crisis.

For me there are three mains “fails” with this post:

  1. It makes an insinuation that people are going to use their stimulus check on something frivolous. The tie to the stimulus check was in the accompanying tweet (not shown).
  2. It misses the mark with the target audience
  3. It uses an image of rapper/artist Drake in a commercial manner

Fancy New Scrubs

In late March, the US government passed a $2 trillion coronavirus stimulus bill to help individual Americans and businesses weather the economic shutdown caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. The bill includes several measures designed to get money into the hands of individuals.

One of these measures is a direct cash payment of $1,200 for individuals earning less than $75,000 plus $500 for each child. A family of four, that earns less than $150,000 per year, for example can expect a payment of $3,400 ($1,200 for each parent, $500 for each child). Anyone that earns over $99,000 are not eligible for this stimulus funding.

There are no restrictions on how the money can be used, but most pundits have talked about the funds as a way to help people with the basics – food, housing and safety. Experts are urging the public to put any excess into their savings as an emergency fund or give to those in need.

In light of this, the top portion of the ad comes across a bit cringe-worthy. It is insinuating that people will use the stimulus money for something frivolous like “fancy new scrubs” rather than on putting food on the table. The lower portion doubles down on this theme by suggesting to the reader that they should use the money to start their own physician practice (rather than pay rent, keep up mortgage payments, etc). I would argue that many would see using the stimulus check for starting a business would be frivolous at the moment (vs say donating it to your local healthcare organization).

Target Audience

Consider for a moment the target audience for this company – physicians who can/want to start their own practice. This ad misses the mark for this target audience on two fronts.

In an article by The Street in 2018, the average annual salary for a medical doctor was $224,190 in 2018 according to data from ZipRecruiter. The range of salaries was between $150,000 and $312,000. I believe that the majority of the people that this ad is targeting would not qualify for a stimulus check.

As well, I’m 100% confident that the software that the practice runs on is not a primary factor in the decision to be an independent physician practice. It *might* be a factor, but I cannot see it being the #1 consideration. There may indeed be people who are considering starting a physician practice right now, and there is a way to speak to that audience – but to imply that $1200 of software would be a tipping point for that decision is a bit of a stretch.

A meme doesn’t = commercial use

The pictures on the left are an internet meme that’s been circulating for years (called Drakeposting). They are stills from Drake’s video for “Hotline Bling” which was released in 2015 and it is often used on social media to simultaneously express disdain for something (the top image) and a liking of something else (the lower image).

People everywhere have used the meme for creative expression:

Although there has been widespread use of this image, it isn’t clear whether it can be used for a commercial purpose (ie: is it fair use or not). It was pointed out that there may be case law that would allow it because of how much it has proliferated on the internet without any issues raised by Drake and his legal team, HOWEVER, I’m not sure as a company I would want to spend precious resources fighting a deep-pocketed celebrity like Drake over the use of his image. You might win the case, but I highly doubt the moral victory would be worth the cost.

Best to leave memes for personal expression and not for advertising (see the exception below).

A Way to Make it Work

Unfortunately for the company, the ad (and the accompanying tweet) completely overshadows its solid offer – $1,200 for a virtual care platform for doctors to build and launch private medical practices. I believe the company lowered their price to help in these unstable times, but that gesture does not shine through in their copy.

Here are a few suggestions to make their ad better:

  • Drop the tie to the stimulus check. It’s an unnecessary association. There are plenty of other aspects of this COVID-19 situation that can be used that will grab attention (ie: the fact we’re all stuck at home)
  • Use a variation of the Drakeposting meme that doesn’t use Drake’s actual image
  • Put more attention on the offer and what the company is trying to do to help in this difficult time

Featured Image Credit: Photo by Quino Al on Unsplash

About the author


Colin Hung

Colin Hung is an award-winning Marketing Executive with more than 15yrs of healthcare and HealthIT experience. He co-founded one of the most popular healthcare chats on Twitter, #hcldr and he has been recognized as one of the “Top 50 Healthcare IT Influencers”. Colin’s work has been published in the Journal of the American College of Radiology, American Society for Healthcare Risk Managers, and Infection Control Today. He writes regularly for Healthcare Scene and here at Colin is a member of #pinksock #TheWalkingGallery and is proudly HITMC. His Twitter handle is: @Colin_Hung.


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  • Love this, Colin! So well-written! We are all scrambling to make (and keep) messaging relevant to the situation at hand, but rushing forward without thinking things through cannot be the answer. Loved the consideration around meme usage in advertising!

    • Thanks Beth. Rushing is never a good thing. I’ve made that mistake a few times. You don’t have to create endless red tape, but at least give yourself the time to consider what you post/advertise from a few perspectives.




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