Is shock value an appropriate approach to Alzheimer’s awareness?

  • A recent public service announcement broadcast in Belgium has added fuel to the controversy over how "clever" it's appropriate to be when it comes to Alzheimer's awareness campaigns.


    The Flemish League Alzheimer's Association recently commissioned a PSA message that has brought strong responses from viewers. The PSA shows a woman with Alzheimer's repeatedly opening her door to her grandson when he arrives only to ask for money. In real life, this obvious "fleecing" of a grandparent with dementia would infuriate nearly anyone. The controversy is over the fact that there seems to be an attempt at humor in this PSA which, according to the article, many viewers think is degrading to the woman with the disease. 

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    Many of us feel that preserving the dignity of people who have Alzheimer's disease, and other types of dementia, is a primary concern. Documentaries such as a recent PBS airing of You're Looking at Me Like I Live Here and I Don't strive to show individuals with AD as unique people coping with a frightening disease. It may not be fair to compare a documentary to a PSA or an ad, because short messages are intended to draw attention quickly and deliver a quick punch. Still, one has to wonder how far Alzheimer's activists can go before creating a caricature similar to a sitcom's attempt to show a "balmy" elder. 


    The need to make the global public aware of the threat of Alzheimer's is covered well in the World Health Organization's report Dementia cases worldwide to triple by 2050. Few would argue with these statistics or the need to increase awareness about AD. A cure for Alzheimer's is not only a humane need, but an economic necessity. It's the method used in the Belgian PSA that is under fire. 


    In late February, an article with video support titled Israeli Alzheimer's awareness campaign confuses theater audience, shows the experience of a movie theater audience that was deliberately tricked. The video shows the audience's confusion after they settle down to watch the movie they paid to attend, only to be shown a different one than expected. Again, this attempt to make people aware of AD had "punch." Did it help the awareness cause? Yes. After a short while, people were told what was going on. However, some people left before the announcement was made, and I imagine there were a few disgruntled movie patrons. Still, one can't deny the impact. 


    Sensitivity training one of the best approaches 


    Masses of people aren't likely to attend sensitivity training sessions in order to learn what it's like to have AD. But well written articles such as Dementia: A small taste of hell on earthcan have a huge impact.  Written by a reporter chronicling his technology-assisted descent into Alzheimer's, the article has great power. In my opinion, it shows a more accurate portrayal of the disease and therefore has greater impact than a shocking PSA. This report illustrates how the person with Alzheimer's must cope with confusing and frightening changes in how he or she views the world. The response of most readers would be one of sympathy and respect for the person with the disease, along with much more understanding. 


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    Perhaps shock value has its place. However, much of the reaction to the Belgian PSA message was more about anger at the young man who took advantage of his grandmother than it was about real awareness of AD. The future will no doubt bring more messages of a shocking nature, since there's only so much that can be portrayed in a few expensive minutes of television. Whether or not this attempt in Belgium was successful in helping people understand the devastation of Alzheimer's, is hard to tell. It did, however, get attention.


    Controversy can get a message across. The only question is whether the message sent is the one we want people to get. 


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    Castillo, M. (2012, April 17) Does this Belgian Alzheimer's PSA go too far? CBS News Healthpop. Retrieved from


    Bursack, C.B. (2012, March 21) PBS documentary shows Alzheimer's from a unique perspective. HealthCentral. Retrieved from


    Associated Press (2012, April 11) WHO: Dementia cases worldwide to triple by 2050. CBS News. Retrieved from;contentBody


    Jaslow, R. (2012, February 28) Israeli Alzheimer's awareness campaign confuses theater audience. CBS News Healthpop. Retrieved from;contentBody


    Bursack, C.B. (2012, January 22) UK reporter chronicles dementia awareness course: calls it a "taste of hell". HealthCentral. Retrived from



Published On: April 24, 2012