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To inspire and be inspired

August 2007 -- Recently the University of Michigan Health System has run one-minute radio advertisements featuring men describing why they became nurses at "U of M." The ads seem to be directed at recruiting nurses and nursing students to the school, though they may also be part of the University's massive ongoing capital campaign. We applaud the ads' focus on attracting men to the profession. The "nurses" come off as articulate, substantial people. And nursing is presented as work with real meaning. Sadly, the ads focus on generalized, emotional angel imagery. We hear about the nurses setting up a summer camp for disabled kids, getting smiles and looks of wonder, loving what they do and not looking at it as a "job," "helping" kids fight cancer, "inspir[ing]" and being inspired. These are good things. But nowhere do listeners get a sense of what nurses actually do for patients--that they have advanced training, that they are clinical and research leaders, that they save lives and improve clinical outcomes in a tangible way. The ads may attract nurses to U of M, and they may serve the school's overall campaign strategy. But the "virtue script" message the ads send to the public about nursing is, at best, uninspired.

In both ads, an apparent nurse speaks conversationally about what brought him to U of M, with the same male narrator delivering tag lines at the end. The first ad: (hear the ad)

NURSE:   I came to the University of Michigan to be a nurse. But what happened was so much more. Back in the 80's, some colleagues and I had this idea to take disabled kids to summer camp for a week. And then we thought to ourselves, what kid doesn't love a treehouse? To us it was never a question of how can we do this. It was more a question of, how can we not do this? So we built a treehouse, 24 feet above the ground, a place where kids go, they leave their wheelchairs behind, and do something they never imagined they could do. It's been years now, and every time I go to camp, and see the look of wonder and the smiles, it never gets old. And it reminds me exactly why I've become a nurse. And why I'm glad to be a nurse at the University of Michigan.

NARR.:  If you come to U of M to be a nurse, expect to inspire and be inspired every day. That's the Michigan difference.

NURSE:  They say if you're good at something, you're lucky. But if you happen to love what you're good at, then you're blessed.

NARR:  Find out more at The leaders in best at the University of Michigan Health System.

Please believe us--we love the idea of doing good things for disabled kids. And we don't doubt that the nurse here is describing a wonderful program (the University has informed us that this is a real nurse describing a real program). You might even argue that the summer camp ideas are a kind of nursing, in the sense that nurses examine patients' needs and come up with creative ideas to improve their overall wellbeing, though we doubt many non-nurses would get that from the ad.

The problem is that many non-nurses could have come up with these good ideas. There does not seem to have been a need for nursing training or skill here. This nurse does not sound like a traditional camp nurse. Is he a specialist in Summer Camp Design Nursing? Or is it Treehouse Nursing? The message to the average listener is that nurses are wonderful, giving people who love to help kids. They inspire and are inspired, they love what they do, they're lucky and blessed. But do they have any health care skill? Do they save lives and improve outcomes? Is this going to appeal to academically ambitious candidates who might not be thinking of nursing? Is there anything here that the public was not well aware of when possibly the worst nursing shortage in U.S. history began nearly a decade ago?

The second ad: (hear the ad)

NURSE:   I've had lots of different careers in the past, anything from information technology in the auto industry to working as a geologist. It wasn't until 2003, when my daughter was diagnosed with cancer, I found that I think nursing is where I needed to be. We were coming to the University of Michigan almost every day for months. I saw what everyone was doing there to help her, and I was just floored. I couldn't just sit there. I wanted to understand her illness, and to help her fight it, and to help other kids fight it. It was at that time that I realized that this is it, this is what I have to do. I had to become a nurse, and I had to become a nurse at the University of Michigan.

NARR.:  If you come to U of M to be a nurse, expect to inspire and be inspired every day. That's the Michigan difference.

NURSE:  I've done the 9-to-5 job, and I'll never go back. Jobs are 9-to-5, and I don't look really at what I do as a job.

NARR:  Find out more at The leaders in best at the University of Michigan Health System.

Once again, please believe that we love the idea of helping kids fight cancer. We are definitely in favor of it. And this ad is a little better in that it at least touches on what nurses do in clinical settings. We also get the sense from the nurse's history of skilled jobs that he is an accomplished person, so nursing must have some appeal for such persons.

Unfortunately, the ad remains maddeningly vague on what nurses actually do. All we hear is that they "help" sick kids fight cancer. And of course, they inspire and are inspired, and they don't really have "jobs"--what they're doing is a vocation, a calling, a noble virtuous spiritual endeavor that, well, when you think about it, they're just angels, gosh, angels we say! So, naturally, they don't need more nursing teachers, or staff, or protection from workplace threats, or a break to eat, because heaven meets those needs for angels, if they have such needs.

Of course, it's hard not to compare these ads to the pre-2007 TV recruitment ads in Johnson & Johnson's Campaign for Nursing Future. Like the Michigan ads, the J&J ads presented variations on the angel stereotype, and the overall impression was not of a skilled profession that made the difference between life and death. But at least the J&J ads showed nurses doing something in clinical settings. One irony in the Michigan ads is that, despite the fact that only men appear in them, they still focus on highly gendered imagery, on qualities that have traditionally been associated with women. The exception is the treehouse construction, but that's not enough to counter the overall themes. Like the J&J ads, the Michigan ads may be a good way for a huge, powerful institution to assure the public that it is really soft and benevolent. But they also reinforce damaging stereotypes about nursing.

We thank the University of Michigan for trying. But we hope it will consider whether nurses really need the public to hear that they excel at being noble.

Please send your feedback to:

Dave Burdon, Director of Marketing at And please copy us on the letter at Thank you!

Snail mail letters can be sent to:

Dave Burdon, Director of Marketing
University of Michigan Health System
1500 E. Medical Center Drive
Ann Arbor, MI 48109

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