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SickKids hospital dials up emotions in new video for fundraising campaign

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TORONTO – Grace Bowen was diagnosed with osteosarcoma a few days shy of her ninth birthday. After going through major surgery and aggressive chemotherapy, she died just 11 months later.

Her story is told in the latest chapter of the SickKids Foundation’s contentious fundraising campaign titled VS. A new video released on Thursday features emotional music and candid shots of Grace and her family during her treatment at Toronto’s Hospital for Sick Children.

The first video ad in the hospital’s campaign, which portrayed children donning warpaint in a rousing call to battle, made headlines across the country – and outside Canada – and sparked a debate about the use of military metaphors in treating disease.

University of Ottawa Prof. Michael Orsini was among the critics who spoke out against the campaign that depicted patients and former patients literally fighting back – as soldiers, wrestlers and superheroes – against illnesses.

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“I think (the campaign) leaves out the folks who are so-called ‘brave soldiers’ who cannot win the war, win the fight. And that is really kind of unfortunate,” Orsini told the CBC last month.

But Andrea Bowen, Grace’s mother, says the public shouldn’t be so quick to judge the campaign.

“Grace did not lose her battle. I can’t stand those words. I hate the thought of people thinking that or saying those words,” says Bowen.

“But this is not the message I got from viewing the (first ad). I think Grace would have loved … the ‘feel’ of it.”

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The SickKids Foundation consulted with more than 50 patients and families and 100 staff members while developing its campaign, including grieving families like the Bowens. The goal was to ensure the ads resonated even with those facing tragedy.

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According to Bowen, the brainstorming process paid off.

“I don’t believe (this campaign) is just about kids fighting issues they are dealing with. It’s about SickKids being there fighting for these children and families, working together, doing their best to save and improve the lives of children.”

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Jay Chaney, chief strategy officer for the ad agency behind the campaign, Cossette, says the project should not be judged solely on the first ad.

“The tone evolves. We’ve tapped into this real, emotional experience of the hospital … and speak to the range of experiences, breakthroughs and losses that happen everyday at SickKids.”

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Chaney also says that the marketing campaign has received mostly positive response on social media, a rare occurrence in the age of Internet trolls and skeptics.

The hospital foundation actually expected more criticism, says Lori Davison, SickKids vice president of brand strategy and communications.

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“I actually thought it would be a lot more polarizing. That’s part of the power of it. People react and it makes them feel something. But I was surprised how overwhelmingly positive the response has been,” says Davison.

“We wanted to stretch people’s emotions. We wanted to be the most different with the first ad, but people will see us dialling up different emotions as we tell different stories.”

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The foundation is hoping the campaign, which has another two ads to be released, will help in a larger effort to raise $1.3 billion for research and hospital infrastructure.

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The first ad was part of a concerted effort to expand the foundation’s donor base to include both younger and male donors. And to date, it’s working. Preliminary campaign data shows an eight per cent increase in male donors and a seven per cent increase in donations from those aged 22 to 44.

For Bowen, the SickKids VS campaign is not about winners and losers. It’s about bravery, courage and helping others.

“We fight every day to continue Grace’s legacy and tell her story. We fight to help other children by raising much needed childhood cancer research funds. We continue to fight everyday to take another step without Grace. And we will continue the fight with SickKids who did all they could with amazing teams of doctors, surgeons, nurses and the people behind the scenes supporting children and families like us.”