In Friday’s Wall Street Journal, Long Island Jewish Medical Center doctor Mangala Narasimhan described the challenge being faced by New York healthcare workers as the city and state became the epicenter of the coronavirus epidemic in the United States. “We’re getting pounded,” said Narasimhan. “I’ve been in ICU care for 15 years, and this is the worst I have ever seen things.”
Narasimhan’s hospital is part of Northwell Health, the largest hospital system in New York State. It, along with many others, is dealing with surges of new patients, overcrowded intensive care units, and equipment and supply shortages.
On Monday, the company—which includes 23 hospitals, nearly 800 outpatient facilities, and more than 14,200 physicians—launched a new ad called “It’s What New Yorkers Do.” The spot, created with the ad agency StrawberryFrog and narrated by actor Ray Romano, opens with shots of empty classrooms, playgrounds, and city streets. “We New Yorkers have been through a lot,” says Romano. “But in our darkest moments, we always find the light.”
Northwell CMO Ramon Soto says that the goal of the ad is to promote accurate information while also combating panic. “The insidious nature of COVID is the fear it creates,” says Soto. “Yet we are convinced we will get through this. New Yorkers are fighters, and our aim is to motivate that fighting spirit. We will get to the other side of this pandemic and are at our best when we get there together.”
The company says that its Northwell Labs is one of 89 public health laboratories across the United States testing for the coronavirus, examining thousands of samples daily. Online, it’s offering resources and expert insights on its coronavirus Digital Resource Center.
It’s an admirable goal to use its advertising to try to inform and inspire its audience, but there’s also a risk here in sending a mixed message. As the crisis continues, with the government scrambling to get more supplies where they’re needed most and ordering hospitals to increase capacity, as Governor Andrew Cuomo has done, the Northwell ad’s images of roomy hospital hallways and people touching and gathering appear as jarring as, say, LeBron James driving a Kia.
Healthcare marketing has always been its own alterna-universe, one that promotes the highest levels of care, technology, and skill, while sidestepping the fact all those smiles and solutions are only accessible to those with the right insurance—or any insurance at all. Northwell offers us more of the same: The disparity between this ad and the assessments of Narasimhan, the critical care physician, are striking. We’re living in a time—particularly in New York—of incredible uncertainty, one where a confident “We got this” vibe feels at best a bit premature, and at worst, detached from reality on the ground.