A serious medical condition can make for uncomfortable discussions between friends and family. But what if you suffer from an embarrassing illness, one you can’t share with your aunt, your workmates or you may even be too ashamed to speak to a medical professional about it?
In the UK, a television show has sparked the imagination of TV and internet viewers by getting people to talk about, share and understand medical and body conditions that some people might think are obscure, freakish or disgusting.
With over 4 million TV viewers and an outstanding level of online engagement during and after each programme, Embarrasing Bodies illustrates that:
- Consumers are interested in everyday health, sickness and wellbeing
- Engaging content can make difficult health subjects accessible through everyday language
- People are willing to talk about personal and embarrasing health issues online
- Access to senior physicians provides a platform for stimulating response
- There is a strong correlation between relevant and challenging content and behaviour change
Embarrasing bodies TV series
Embarrassing Bodies was commissioned by Channel 4 as part of their public service remit to explore difficult personal medical issues. Since 2007 the factual entertainment series and website, produced by Maverick Television, has delivered on-screen diagnosis by the team’s professional medical presenters who explain complex medical conditions in an engaging way. They follow patients through their decisions and operations, showing life-changing stories as sufferers are relieved of burdens from illness they have lived with sometimes for many years. Participants trust the show’s talented experts, who include Doctors Christian Jessen, Pixie McKenna and Dawn Harper who have become role models for General Practitioners.
The heart-rendering Charlotte’s Story told the journey of a child who’s ugly verrucas were diagnosed as a symptom of a life-threatening bone marrow condition. The broadcast had an incredible response: The Antony Nolan Trust saw a 5,000% rise in requests for information on Bone Marrow Transplant the day after transmission.
The power of the web experience
The secret to the show’s success is its engaging web and interactive experience. The website generated the highest ever web and mobile viewing figures for a Channel 4 show, garnering 1.2 million page views within 24 hours of a May 2008 broadcast. The show regularly attracts 150,000 viewers who engage during or after each episode.
Viewers respond to a powerful call-to-action from the TV broadcast to visit the website where they can explore the issues raised. An Autism-Spectrum Test was accessed 38,000 times in less than a minute.
The show encourages viewers to take further action to safeguard their health by performing checks on their skin, breast and testicles, providing web resources for self-diagnosis. The website regularly receives comments from those who have been motivated to act, like a woman who discovered a lump in her breast:
“Because I found it in very early stages, it hadn’t spread and my outlook is fabulous. Thank you for your clear way of showing people like me how to potentially save our own lives!”
The show has a presence in selected networks: through the TV broadcast, the website, and a Facebook group (which has 147,000 fans) which feeds key stories and links from the show’s main website. The #embarrasingbodies hashtag is used by thousands of Twitter viewers during the show, although the show has no official Twitter presence.
Jonnie Turpie, Digital Director of Maverick Television believes:
“The multiplatform health approach integrates each media to its best effect for the user, whether on TV, web or mobile. This acknowledges that our viewers are multi-taskers rather than ‘sit-back’ consumers of one medium at a time.”
Channel 4’s Cross Platform Commissioner Adam Gee believes the key to the series’ success is in combining talent and honesty in an entertaining and engaging form.
“If you want to talk about lactose intolerance, get their attention by talking about farting as a way into it. Health information doesn’t need to be po-faced. It’s a good engaging route into ‘meat and two veg’ healthcare issues. The show’s very open, non-judgemental tone and human language creates a huge sense of reassurance that people aren’t alone, and also a sense of hope.”
Embarrasing Bodies uses straight-talking everyday language to engage people about their health
Embarrassing Teenage Bodies targeting difficult-to-reach teenagers, generated a flood of 11,000 website comments showing confidence and changed attitudes. During the evening of the broadcast, 99,000 people took an online STI risk checker – engagement you would be unlikely to ever find in a sex education lesson at school. This show generated many mobile downloads, suggesting that teenagers are more likely to access this type of content in private on mobile devices than on computers.
The website allows for anonymous interactions: users do not have to pre-register to submit their photos or questions or to comment, however, the team have launched a new strand with real identities, Embarrassing Bodies: Kids for worried parents that have a common interest in the welfare of the children. Channel 4 have used the programme as a model for supporting the preventative public health agenda and experimenting with online interactivity. They are currently developing a buddying system for people who suffer from the same chronic illness to support one another and share first hand experiences.
Embarrassing Bodies Live
This year the broadcaster took TV-to-web interactivity to the next level with Embarrassing Bodies Live – a web-only show directly after the TV broadcast. 42,000 viewers logged on to the site to pose questions to the team’s medical presenters. The live show aimed to do things that linear TV or a radio phone-in could not: responding directly to viewers questions and rewarding interaction through shaping the editorial. Viewers submitted photos and questions anonymously then anyone could vote on those they wanted to be discussed, directly affecting the editorial in real time. It took the conversations that were already happening on Twitter and spring-boarded them into a wider conversation. #embarrassingbodies was the biggest trending topic on Twitter in the UK that night.
Embarrassing Bodies has developed a sizeable community of interest, but it’s a transient rather than sticky community. Adam Gee explains:
“You have to think carefully about what you’re doing with a community and not do the default thing to say let’s make a social network because they’re all the rage. What kind of social network would be build around embarrassing illnesses except one of hypochondriacs? People don’t come with a common interest to a site like this: it’s a lot of small, temporary communities. They arrive in a just-in-time, task-oriented way, looking for the condition they are worried about. They then hang out in the community just long enough to find which is the best support group or other help to plug into.
“The series has always connected to profession bodies, encouraging viewers to visit their General Practitioners and linking to the UK’s National Health Service Choices website. The destination sites are a stark contrast from the rich, engaging Embarrassing Bodies space. Suddenly, you’re in this white, stripped environment. They are two poles of public service health – we need to recognise that it is one continuum: on one end are health professionals, on the other are communication professionals. We spend all day finding ways to entertain and engage people, and they spend all day thinking about what is the correct medical procedure.”
Lessons for the healthcare industry
The website benefits exponentially from its springboard from a popular TV brand which regularly attracts up to four million television viewers. The challenge for the healthcare industry is to create its own springboards based on highly engaging content.
Embarrassing Bodies shows that rich media and interactivity can lead to deeper levels of engagement and changes in behaviour. Jonnie Turpie believes:
“Now that broadband accessibility and video steaming on the web is accessible to wider audiences there are increasing opportunities to make engaging interactive content and services. This enables digital media producers to deliver valuable health engagement, rather than simply health information, which may lead to greater prevention of illness.”
Video is a powerful platform to stimulate patient engagement through factual television programming and advertising, or web television IPTV solutions and factual advertorial on channels like YouTube (the second most popular search engine) which offers access to a large, global audience.
Nucleus Medical Media’s YouTube channel, a B2B service for animated films for medical and pharmaceutical products, has attracted millions of viewers for their films. RUYAN’s five minute information advert in German for an electric cigarette garnered 700,000 viewers, tapping into consumers searches for solutions to quit the habit. Cure Tube, a video site which cross posts videos to YouTube, shows interviews of those seeking cures for illness and reports on their journeys using conventional and alternative cures.
To make the most of digital engagement opportunities, television and online video should create a call-to-action to move audiences online and provide more in-depth information and medical solutions. Embarrassing Bodies shows that promoting illness, no matter how difficult to discuss, in an approachable and human way and providing value for the user to progress their understanding, can capture attention and imagination, forming a first step in creating patient engagement.