The Deconstructed Brief
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Imaginary Friend Society


Brand: Pediatric Brain Tumor Foundation
Agency: RPA


Every three minutes, a child will receive a cancer diagnosis.

This diagnosis upends children’s lives and thrusts them into a frightening and confusing world of complex terminology and clinical procedures that do not translate well into kidspeak. The inability to understand this causes children anxiety, which inhibits the healing process.

How do you explain something as complicated and life-altering as cancer to kids — and how do you do it without making them more anxious and interfering with their treatment?

Key insight

Kids should understand cancer.

The idea:

The agency needed to put cancer treatment procedures into terminology that children could understand. RPA utilized its industry partnerships and connections — over 40 different organizations — to create a series of 22 animated short films. The fictitious characters in the Imaginary Friend Society explain every facet of cancer, from the factual — “What is cancer?” and “What is an MRI?” — to the emotional — “Feeling sad” and “Why am I tired all the time?”

The Society’s website allows visitors to donate their own imaginary friends to the cause. Individuals can also submit characters to Facebook, Instagram and Twitter, using #ImagineryFriendSociety. RPA transformed the figures into tools, such as coloring books and stuffed toys that children could use to cope with hospital stays and medical treatments. The agency also created a mobile app to further soothe kids’ fears.

The films launched at the Pediatric Brain Tumor Foundation’s Starry Night 5K at Griffith Park in Los Angeles in September 2017, during Childhood Cancer Awareness Month. They have been adopted by leading hospitals around the country and translated into over a dozen languages. Without spending a single media dollar, the campaign garnered significant support as it spread: It received $1MM in media value and more than 46.3MM PR impressions in top-ranked DMAs.

The work won a number of industry awards, including the gold Jay Chiat Award for Non-profit Strategy.

What they said:

“I’m so thrilled we could get so many real friends together to bring the Imaginary Friend Society to life,” says Jason Sperling, chief of creative development at RPA. “This colossal project was an absolute labor of love, worth the enormous effort it took to make it happen. To make these terrifying experiences a little easier for kids dealing with cancer, and to bring smiles to their faces during a truly difficult time, makes it all worth it.”

Lessons to be learned:

  • Solve the human problem. — The Foundation approached RPA about the creation of some basic pro bono marketing materials designed to explain cancer and its treatment to children. Rather than just produce a typical awareness-generating campaign targeting adults, the agency saw an opportunity to directly help the kids themselves, based on the insights they developed talking with medical professionals and pediatric cancer survivors. As a result, almost all (96%) said the videos help parents and caregivers talk with kids about difficult issues, and over three-fourths (85%) said the films helped kids feel less anxious and scared. Similar numbers (80%) said that the video met a “real need” in their lives.

  • Base insights on behavior. — Institutions, such as hospitals and health care, often rely on traditional topics and ideas to create their advertising, resulting in a sea of sameness communicating the benefits of community and personalized care.

    The idea was inspired by real pediatric cancer survivors who told agency researchers that they had imaginary friends who helped them cope with long hospital stays. (Almost two-thirds [65%] of children will have had an imaginary friend by the time they turn 7.) These tend to be lonely stretches, even with family and loved ones around, and are the times when imaginary friends are needed most.

    Campaigns that use consumer and cultural insights — supported by research data — and go the extra mile to make these daunting topics more accessible and personal by extending (or rejecting) the traditional approaches of community and individualized care can help fill an even greater need in potential and current patients’ lives.

  • Be useful. — The Imaginary Friend Society fulfilled a specific need for some of society’s youngest patients by helping them process their diagnosis. Other award-winning campaigns, such as “VR Vaccine” from Ogilvy Brazil, have applied similar principles to their efforts, all while demonstrating the creative potential of health care-related work. The application of augmented and virtual reality in these campaigns allows elements of the campaign to function directly within patients’ lives — and, in the case of the Imaginary Friend Society, on an as-needed basis, as dictated by the user.

    Central to the campaign is the insight on how children understand the world: through narrative that translates abstract and foreign concepts into relatable stories, events and characters. Augmented reality helped RPA create a comprehensive experience that allowed the imaginary friends to live outside of digital videos as part of an overarching, cohesive narrative that remained with kids throughout every step of the process. As the first generation to grow up in a world with ubiquitous artificial intelligence, this meets an unspoken expectation for type of interaction.