That gargantuan heart all squishy with compassion thumping away!
May 2011 -- For this year's Nurses Week celebration, the major U.S. managed health care group Kaiser Permanente put together a 60-second radio ad. The ad certainly offers a glowing portrait of nurses, but it's also one of the most extreme and relentless presentations of angel imagery that we have ever seen. The ad doesn't just extol nurses as "noble" and "selfless." It goes on and on about their "colossal" "capacity to care," their "superhuman" "sympathy," their "heart" of "compassion," their "love," and how the self-effacing caregivers endure their exhausting, disgusting jobs (with frequent exposure to various "bodily fluids") without complaint. There is a passing reference to being "tough," but the ad also embraces the use of "nurse" to mean "breastfeeding." The angel imagery here is so strong, and so undiluted by any hint that nurses are educated professionals who save lives, that the ad might even work to undermine the claims of Kaiser's 45,000 nurses to adequate resources, persuading them that their highest aspiration is to endure the unendurable. In any case, the ad seems likely to reinforce the damaging female angel image of nursing in the minds of nurses and lay people alike. Some nurses love the ad; we guess it's hard to see what's wrong with a series of gushing compliments, especially when they play into what society has long told nurses sets them apart. But as long as nurses are defined solely by their "gargantuan heart all squishy with compassion thumping away"--yes, the ad script really says that--nurses will not get the respect or resources they need to save lives. We urge Kaiser to aim higher.
The radio ad (click the arrow in the image above to hear it) features a female narrator, who speaks in an affectionate, conversational tone over some folksy acoustic guitar chords. The full script:
Nurse means noble. Nurse means selfless. Mothers nurse their children. You nurse someone back to health. If there were ever a group of people more on the give side of the give-take continuum, that would be news to us. I mean, why does one become a nurse? Because working 8 at night to 10 in the morning is so appealing? Because the glamor of day to day encounters with a wide variety of bodily fluids is too much to resist? Nurses are nurses because their capacity to care is colossal. Their sympathy, superhuman. Even when you try to act all steely and businesslike you can't fool us, we still see the love and the tough. We can still hear that gargantuan heart all squishy with compassion thumping away. So while too often you yield the spotlight, for just this moment, we're asking all the nurses out there to do what clearly doesn't come natural, and take a bow. Kaiser Permanente. May our 45,000 nurses all live long and thrive.
We appreciate that the ad is saying nice things about nurses. But it defines nurses almost entirely by emotional and self-sacrificing qualities, as if they were professional mothers. Actually, the ad explicitly compares them to mothers, which isn't the focus nursing needs to attract more men, or anyone who wants a professional career that requires a college education. Yes, the ad says nurses are "tough," and they may "try to act all steely and businesslike," but what distinguishes them is their nobility, their selflessness, their giving, their caring, their sympathy, their love, their 14-hour overnight shifts, their "day to day encounters with a wide variety of bodily fluids," and yes, "that gargantuan heart all squishy with compassion thumping away."
The ad is subtle in one respect: It urges nurses to "take a bow" and says they yield the spotlight "too often." But every other bit of the ad tells nurses that what makes them great is that they do not seek recognition--or anything else--for their monumental sacrifices. Who could respond to an ad like this by actually asking for anything more? Wouldn't you feel like you were betraying your own highest self? (Please sir . . . I want some . . . more?) The ad ends by urging Kaiser's 45,000 nurses to "live long and thrive." But how are they going to do that if we've persuaded them that their reason for being is to sacrifice their bodies and souls to provide love and compassion?
We know it isn't easy to see how a series of over-the-top compliments can actually harm nursing. But nursing has not been in crisis worldwide for more than a decade because people suddenly forgot that nurses were really compassionate, loving, and stoic. Nor is the main problem that the world suddenly decided that those qualities are unimportant, though we suppose that is a little more plausible, in this brutal cost-cutting era. No, we think the biggest problem for nursing is that the profession confronts the current economic climate in a global society that still sees nursing in terms of one or more demeaning stereotypes. These range from the angel to the bimbo to the battleaxe, but one thing they all have in common is that they fail to include the basic reality that nurses are college-educated health science professionals who save lives and improve outcomes in tangible ways, from detecting subtle changes in conditions to performing critical procedures to advocating for better treatments to educating patients about how to adapt. That is what the world needs to understand if nurses are to get the resources they need to "live long and thrive." Love and compassion don't seem to be enough.
We hope that in the future Kaiser will consider running ads about a nurse's gargantuan brain, all squishy with neurons firing away.
Please email Kaiser and tell them your thoughts on their ad.
Chuck E. Columbus, Senior vice president and chief Human Resources officer
Diane Gage Lofgren, Senior vice president, Brand Strategy, Communications and Public Relations
Laura Marshall VP, Media Relations; and
Wendy Pinto, Senior Communications Specialist
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