Why Cancer Research UK’s death threat is wrong

Last week, I received a letter from ‘cancer’. Written in the first person.

This is some of what cancer told me  “Everyone knows me and the devastation I cause…for those people (who get cancer) their friends and families, things won’t ever be the same again….I don’t care who I hurt. I’m still tearing lives apart…every two minutes I take hold of another person….and I won’t go away without a fight.”

Scary stuff. But if that’s not enough, it also talks of death: “Now they are saying that someday soon I won’t be a death threat anymore….because scientists are outsmarting me”.

In essence, if you don’t give to Cancer Research UK, cancer might carry out its death threat. On you.

Of course, the conceit is too clever by half. But smart-arse rather than smart creativity is not the real issue here.

Cancer is a subject that calls for maturity and sensitivity. For instance, someone at the charity (if not the agency) should have thought about the impact this could have on someone who’s just been diagnosed. Or is living with secondary breast cancer. Or who has no idea what their prognosis might be. Or whose child has just been diagnosed.

Cancer patients are often in a very delicate emotional state. It doesn’t take much to scare them. To cause panic. So it really isn’t smart for our leading cancer charity to talk about “a death threat”. Under any circumstances. The language is wrong. We all know what cancer can do. And is a threat really the best way to make the case for research? This is not brave creative. It is stupid creative.

Understatement is far more powerful. Quiet dignity more moving than rage. There is not even an apology anywhere in the piece that states “if this reaches you at a difficult time we are very sorry for any distress it may cause….”

So excited were the team about this conceit that the rest of the pack appears woefully neglected. There’s no human interest, not even any exciting news on research, just some dull corporate puffery (“We receive no government funding” being highlighted twice) and a direct debit form. Oh and “Genome mapping” is not the sort of language I’d employ in a door drop especially with no explanation as to what it means or its relevance.

It’s a shame, having spent all that money on the re-brand, that the first piece of Cancer Research UK print many people will see is this. It lacks humanity, sensitivity and clarity. I fear the the tone smacks of a large organisation that has now lost touch with the people it is ultimately there to help. Let’s hope that future work shows a better understanding of patients and their needs and a clearer grasp of how research can provide answers.


    I’d been hoping for some sort of comment from Cancer Research UK. There have been a number of tweets and emails about this blog, but nothing so far from the charity. As soon as I do hear something, I will pass it on.

  • Nick Georgaidis

    I would like to apologise to Chris
    and anyone who is upset or offended by this mailing. Cancer Research UK is
    always trying to help people to understand the importance of research and
    highlight the fact that there is still so much work to be done to beat cancer.


    Un-addressed public mailings like the one Chris received are
    a proven, cost effective way for us to raise these vital funds to help us
    continue to beat cancer. With this particular appeal, we have tried to inspire
    people to consider helping fund our research, by representing the anger people
    feel towards this terrible disease. Our work has been at the heart of the huge
    progress made in doubling survival rates over the last 40 years. Every
    pound more we are able to raise will help us to continue this progress for everyone
    who has been, is or will be affected by cancer in their lifetime.  Nick Georgiadis, Head of Direct Giving, Cancer Research UK


      Thank you for the apology, Nick. It is good of you to come on to the blog and make your case. However, I note that there is no acknowledgement that you may just possibly have made a misjudgement? That worries me.

      At the very least, bearing in mind the contentious nature of the content, there should have been the standard rider included “We’re sorry if this mailing arrives at a difficult time etc etc”. Was there a deliberate decision to omit it? Or did no-one think of it?

      As part of the conceit, there is also a deliberate attempt on the outer envelope NOT to reveal what the subject matter is inside. So a cancer patient, or a member of their family, is not given a clear chance to decide whether to open it or ignore it.

      I would urge anyone reading this, patient or family member, who is finding it hard to cope with cancer to contact Macmillan (tel: 0808 808 00 00) or Breast Cancer Care (tel: 0808 800 6000) as appropriate, for emotional support and advice. It really does help.

  • Tod Norman


    I think you are very lucky that Chris is being so professional and restrained and that this response hasn’t gone viral and ballistic.  

    I have not seen the original piece, but can visualise it from Chris’ description. From my professional experience of researching work for ICRF and my personal experience of friends and family living with, in remission or dying from cancer, I can imagine how it might have made people feel.  

    But that is not my point. 

    Your response to Chris is reflective of a very corporate, impersonal, and traditional mindset; it lacks any empathy or sense of responsibility. 

    In this world of social media, it could be seen as arrogant at best and down right  inflammatory at worst.

    May I strongly suggest that you get some PR/social media training before you respond again.

    (No, I don’t sell this type of training; yes, I am a supporter of CRUK: no, I have no intention of pushing this out to the wider public.  I really am trying to be helpful)

  • Claire Willers

    I got this door drop too and i was impressed. I even kept it, intending to blog about it. The words reflected how I felt when family and friends were diagnosed with cancer, and it made me angry – in a good way. Angry enough to keep it, want to write about it and yes, to donate. Though I did put it in a drawer when a friend whose mum had cancer came to visit. I’ve not engaged this much with something that fell through the letterbox in years.

    I felt that I knew what Cancer Research UK does – I know its research is important and I know that research leads to life-saving developments. The charity has done enough brand work that i knew this and it didn’t need to be on there. I find a lot of medical charity fundraising upsetting but not this. I opened it, read the whole thing and kept it. I told someone about it.

    So though I can see exactly what Chris means, I just wanted to share my experience of having been powerfully and positively affected by this. Perhaps the problem wasn’t so much the creative but the medium? The fact that anyone can see it? Maybe caveat as suggested by Chris may be a good idea on future versions?


      You make some very valid points Claire. Thank you. The piece was intended to reflect the anger many people feel, as Nick suggested above. It clearly worked for you.

      However, it is revealing that you hid it when your friend came round. When you have cancer you walk a very high emotional tightrope. Some days you can cope with the emotional stress, some days you can’t. On the bad days, the smallest thing can cause you immense distress. Some of these triggers cannot be avoided. But this is not the case with this door drop.

      A communication from the country’s leading cancer charity that references “a death threat” is just the sort of thing to tip you over the edge if you get it on a bad day. And when there is no clear way of knowing what the subject matter is before you open it, that is nothing short of reckless.

      Cancer patients cling to the hope that they will be ok. And thanks to the work of CRUK and others, many more will be. The hardest thing to handle is that with cancer there are no certainties. That is mental agony enough. I don’t care whether this door drop works or not. It has the content and tone to cause serious distress to those in a fragile emotional state. Ask Macmillan. Ask Breast Cancer Care.

      Whatever the results, it must never again be sent uninvited into a cancer patient’s home – as it will be -  employing the language it does and without the safeguards I refer to above.

      • Claire Willers

        I agree Chris. It’s not something that can be avoided if it comes through the letterbox. On consideration, I don’t think the mailing should be repeated. I just wanted to share my immediate reaction, which wasn’t the same as most here, correctly or not.  I find the Cancer Research TV ads more immediately upsetting than I found this, and they can’t be avoided either. The mailing seemed to me to contain a message of hope when you read through – I actually read it as ‘we are beating cancer’, though the headline is alarming. I think this is a really important debate on the nature of shock and fear in charity advertising.


          And you are making a very valuable contribution to that debate, thank you. I do think there is a substantial difference though, in using shock to shake people out of complacency for causes that may not directly affect them and shock in the context of cancer, which has unique and often serious emotional consequences for the individual concerned.

          Cancer is an emotive subject that directly affects far too many people. It doesn’t need “bigging up” as an issue to get people to give. Much of Cancer Research UK’s past TV work has been very effective and moving, without scaring anyone or talking directly of ‘death’. It can be done.

  • Consuela Marcotti

    I’m sorry this isn’t my real name – I need to protect someone else’s identity:

    A dear colleague of mine has just been diagnosed with cancer, too late. She has yet to
    tell our other colleagues so I can’t betray her confidence, but I’m watching her wait to learn how long she’s got. She’s waiting to hear whether she has a few years, months, or weeks. I don’t know whether I’ll see her after Christmas.

    Cancer is terrible. Not only because it mutilates and kills but because the fear of the disease is so profound. Why else do we in the UK present so late and therefore have worse outcomes than we could? 

    And it’s the fear of cancer that this piece plays on and amplifies. “Every two minutes I take hold of another person”. I feared it but never imagined its scale was so great. My mum, dad, grandfather, godmother and two uncles have all had cancer. It’s killed three of them. I was frightened already.

    Maybe this is why I felt sick when I saw it. And this feeling’s lasted days, like a burglary, like my home was invaded. I don’t feel like giving. I feel angry with the charity which has a mission to cure this disease. This isn’t how I want to feel about them, having supported their work for years. 

    The people above are more positive than me – I can’t see how the piece can be modified to prevent distress. How much collateral damage is ok? Where should the line be drawn? Their TV ads were sad and moving – the old man with the empty place on the couch beside him – yet perfectly acceptable. Emotion is fine but scaremongering is irresponsible.

    The work this charity does is great but this campaign is ill-conceived. It must be horrible for the people who delivered it to read this blog but I hope they can find it in their hearts to re-consider and find other ways to carry out their important work.

  • Charlotte Parker

    I’ve not seen the material myself so I am admittedly just commenting here on what you have said, but based on your description this sounds like an utterly crass piece of marketing that has totally missed the mark so to speak.

    I understand that different people feel inclined to give to charities for various reasons, but for me, threats just will not work. Something as distasteful as this would actually make me reluctant to give to CR not just in this campaign, but in any future campaigns. I want to give to a charity because I believe in the cause rather than because I feel obliged because of a ‘death threat’. The last thing this pack would make me feel would be ‘inspired’ to give - which according to Nick his comment was one of the aims of the mail out.

    There are so many charities out there all battling for the same funds so I can understand why CR have wanted to do something attention grabbing, but I just don’t think that this works. I can’t believe the term ‘death threat’ was every allowed into the piece – almost everyone knows someone affected by cancer, we don’t need this stark reminder.

    I work for a charity that deals with life and death every day (The Air Ambulance Service) and I know all too well how hard it can be to judge the line between being sensitive to people’s feelings while at the same time generating much needed income, but I think Cancer Research UK have really misjudged this. It seems ill thought out and just not considerate of people’s feelings, and at the end of the day, if someone is not considering how you may feel, why should you impart your hard earned money to them?

  • Ali Sanders

    Hi Consuela,

    I work for Macmillan Cancer Support but I’ve also recently finished treatment for breast cancer so I completely get where you’re coming from. Cancer is an incredibly tough experience – for family and friends as well as the patient. But there is lots of support out there. You’re not alone. If you need information or just fancy a chat (or to sound off or have a cry) you can call the team on the Macmillan Support Line on 0808 808 00 00 (Mon-Fri 9am-8pm) or check out the online community: http://community.macmillan.org.uk/  There are scores of different groups and hundreds of discussion threads including lots for family and friends and it’s a really friendly and supportive environment. I found it very useful at certain points even though I’m not much of a social media user normally. I won’t list all the other support here but you can find out more at: http://www.macmillan.org.uk/HowWeCanHelp/HowWeCanHelp.aspx

    Take good care of yourself and I hope your colleague gets all the support she needs to live well for as long as possible.

    • Consuela Marcotti

      Hi Ali

      It’s enormously kind of you to reply so personally, thank you. 

      I never saw myself as needing support but I’ll give that serious thought – I felt tearful when I thought of someone listening to me explain how sad I am for my colleague, and perhaps that’s why I felt so acutely distressed by what felt a malevolent item. An over-reaction, I know logically, but I found it so difficult to shake its impact emotionally.

      Best wishes to you too, and thanks again.

      ps thank you Chris for writing about this and to the other contributors for their thought-provoking contributions.

  • Nick Georgaidis

    Thank you to everyone who has posted on this forum
    since Chris’ original blog.  It’s great to hear how passionate you are
    about beating cancer and to get your opinions and thoughts of how we could do
    things better.  I really appreciate your taking the time to do this.


    I just wanted to say again that it was never our intention
    to cause any distress or upset and I would like to apologise sincerely to
    anyone who was offended by our test mailing. We’ll carefully consider all your
    points alongside the other feedback we’ve received and the results before
    deciding whether to use the pack again.  One thing I can assure you now is
    that we will re-introduce the message which apologises to people who receive
    this at a difficult time on future appeals for new supporters.  We should
    have done this in the first place so I’m sorry we didn’t.


      Thank you, Nick. I am very much reassured by your reply.

      With cancer, you don’t really have to persuade people about the need to beat it, you just have to persuade them to part with their money to do so.

      I wish Cancer Research UK great success.

  • andre

    I know this is abit extreme in the financial crisis we’re in but why isnt cancer research free? Why are companies making profit (i.e machinery, medicines etc) off of researchers trying to find the cures. Money shouldnt be involved to find the cure the only money that should be spent is paying the staff and researchers. Shouldnt there be some kind ever lasting budget of some sort? If that makes any sense..

  • Charlie Swift

    While I do agree that this is a clever way to get people talking and make a donation, I feel that the way this has been done is completely wrong. It’s very insensitive and hurtful. My family received this letter 4 days after my grandma had died from lung cancer. At first we had missed the small print on the back of the letter and were extremely angry about it. We thought it was somebody’s idea of a sick, twisted joke. We thought this because of the death threats that have already been mentioned. I would have thought such a big organisation like this that works to try and help people with cancer-related issues and tries to get people to donate money would have had a bit more tact and delivered it in a more sensitive way. I hope that soon, Cancer Research UK will offer a national apology to people who are in similar situations to that of my family.

  • Consuela Marcotti

    Dear Chris

    Please forgive me, I’m in shock and I selfishly feel the need to complete what I started above. My dear colleague has died. 

    All I want to say is that cancer charities must act responsibly as they can influence people’s wider actions and increasing fear is unhelpful. I think my friend waited too long. Again my thanks for your article.


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