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Would you donate an organ to a stranger? This extraordinary new ad campaign makes it hard to say no

Montefiore and ad agency Alto have created a platform for people waiting for organs to advertise their stories to possible donors.

Would you donate an organ to a stranger? This extraordinary new ad campaign makes it hard to say no
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Jo-Vann Baskerville-Brown is a 38-year-old woman in South Jersey. She wants to go to Greece someday. She’d like to see the Northern Lights, too. She has a young daughter and a loving husband. Her sister is her best friend. She’s pursuing her dream of becoming a guidance counselor. She also needs a kidney transplant, and a living donor is the best chance for her survival right now.

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What would it take to persuade you to donate an organ to someone you’ve never met? Thousands of people around the United States, like Jo-Vann, are faced with that very challenge as they wait for a possible organ donor. Now, an unusual new marketing campaign is giving patients professional advertising tools to market themselves to prospective donors. Unlike traditional advertising, the “product” is the chance to save their life.

Due to a large gap between the number of people needing a kidney transplant and the number of kidneys available at any given time, patients are often forced to advocate for themselves to try and encourage people to become a donor. Not only is this an added burden on people in a health crisis, it also prioritizes those willing and able to market themselves in this way. The bulk of these efforts happen across social media, with people sharing their stories in the hopes of finding a donor. Sometimes, patients explore even more creative means. One Milwaukee woman rented a freeway-side billboard asking for help.

But most people aren’t versed in the business of persuasion. This is where New York-based hospital and healthcare provider Montefiore Health System is hoping its new platform will come in.

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The company and its ad agency Alto have created “Live and Let Live,” a digital platform designed to help patients tell their stories. Through simple prompts, patients input details about their lives, including images and audio, and in a matter of minutes the platform turns those inputs into a deeply personal, heartfelt film, in addition to social and print content, for them to share on social and Montefiore’s “Live and Let Live” site. Oscar-nominated filmmaker Derek Cianfrance (Sound of Metal, Blue Valentine), and composer Ludovico Einaudi consulted on the look and sound of the ads the platform can create.

Montefiore chief marketing officer Loreen Babcock says part of the approach was to help viewers shed preconceived notions about why patients want to live. “We want to take that assumption out, and create that story about what’s important to them and why they want to be here. That’s how you create a real human connection,” Babcock says.

Every day, 12 people die waiting for a kidney

People in need of kidney transplants are by far the largest proportion of people on the U.S. organ waiting list, followed by liver, then heart transplants. According to the National Kidney Foundation, there are up to 100,000 patients on the kidney donation waiting list. The average wait time is three to seven years for a kidney transplant depending on where they live. Every day, 12 people die waiting for a kidney.

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There are two types of organ donation: First is deceased, where someone has died and donates their still-functioning organs. And second is living donation, possible for both kidney and liver, in which a living person donates a kidney or a part of their liver to someone else. Living donation was responsible for a total of 5,726 transplants in 2020, a decrease of 22.6% over the record 7,397 living donor transplants set in 2019. The pandemic is to blame for the decrease, and overall living donor transplants have been on the rise, according to data from the Department of Health and Human Services.

Making a professional ad

The ads created by the platform will be featured on the “Live and Let Live” site, and mix text and photos, alongside a building piano score—advertising devices anyone who has seen a Nike or Google commercial over the past couple of years will recognize as a surefire way to stir emotions. Alto founder Hannes Ciatti has worked with brands like Apple, Nike, and Google, and knows that the most powerful advertising is when it forges an emotional connection. “When we started on this, we asked ourselves, what can we as marketers do, with the people and tools we have, and people in Hollywood and elsewhere we have access to, to help them tell their story better?” says Ciatti. “We figured out they needed to talk about why they wanted to live. It can’t just be a ‘poor me’ video. And this became one of the best parts, hearing all the reasons they wanted to keep on living. Spend more time with family, see Egypt, just all these experiences. It really resonated.”

A big part of what the new tool generates is visual, and Alto used AI technology to make the process of selecting images as easy as possible for patients. In addition to user-uploaded photography about who they are and who they want to live for, each piece features photography that represents what the user wants to do in the future. “To make this process as seamless as possible, we use natural language processing (AI) to parse the user’s inputs and understand the verbal significance of words or phrases in their response,” says Alto’s digital strategy director Paul Aaron. “We then cross-reference a massive stock photo library to provide image options for them to choose from. In short, the AI makes photographic suggestions and the patient makes the final call on which to use in their film.”

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A numbers game

Organ transplant organizations and advocates have been pushing for more living donors for a few reasons, not the least of which is they tend to be healthier organs. But also, in a sheer numbers game, it opens up the pool of potential donors significantly. Dr. Milan Kinkhabwala, Montefiore’s chief of transplantation and director of abdominal transplantation, says asking someone to donate a piece of themselves to save your life is no easy task. “Many times these patients don’t know how to talk to potential donors, or initiate that conversation,” says Dr. Kinkhabwala. “They have anxiety about it. This is meant to break down those feelings that prevent them from being proactive in getting a donor.”

The most obvious living donors are family, but Kinkhabwala says there has been a gradual increase in what they call altruistic donors, people who donate with no family connection to the patients. As he began to see that trend emerge over the past couple of years, Kinkhabwala spoke to Montefiore chief marketing officer Loreen Babcock about making the process of finding information and encouraging participation much easier. “There’s a good opportunity here to match altruistic donors to potential recipients, and this campaign and the tool are meant to facilitate that,” Kinkhabwala says.

Leveling the playing field

Right now, the storytelling tool is moving out of beta testing, and the campaign aim for “Live and Let Live” is to both raise general awareness around the power and need for living donors, and to spread the stories of Montefiore’s 1,500 patients currently awaiting a kidney or liver. Eventually, the goal is to integrate video and other elements, so that the tool can create videos like the spot above featuring 8-year-old Nini Skye in a matter of minutes for any patient. Skye isn’t a real patient, but the story of the ad is an amalgamation of Montefiore patients to illustrate the new platform’s capabilities, and raise awareness of both the need and opportunity for living organ donation.

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Of course, while the tool is a creative approach to a difficult problem, it doesn’t solve the broader issue that those who are better at marketing themselves may receive a donation sooner. A person on the waiting list who tells a great story and is able to share it far and wide could, theoretically, leap frog someone else who’s been on the waiting list longer, if a donor requests them specifically. Montefiore acknowledges that its platform isn’t changing the system, but it is aiming to level the playing field for more people.

Dr. Kinkhabwala says Montefiore’s nurse coordinators and team are starting to talk to all kidney and liver transplant patients about this option when they come in, so they can be guided through the process.

Ideally, as patients start to participate, other patients will feel encouraged to participate. Eventually, they may also extend it to donors, to explain the reasons behind their decision to help a stranger, in the hopes of adding to the appeal for others to join. Dr. Kinkhabwala sees potential for the new tool beyond Montefiore. “If this projects works how we hope it will,” he says. “I think there will be a lot of interest in it across the transplant community nationally.”

About the author

Jeff Beer is a staff editor at Fast Company, covering advertising, marketing, and brand creativity.

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