Charter Hospitals Tests Infomercial for Treatment

In what is believed to be the first infomercial to address the sensitive subject of mental health, Charter Hospitals, Atlanta, finished a six-week, 32-market test that was designed to heighten awareness of the hospital network's alcohol and depression services.

With creative more akin to a public service announcement than an infomercial hard-sell, the 90-hospital network launched the test to counter a trend of flattening call volume. The hospital network specializes in drug, alcoholism and mental health treatments.

Spending about $20 million annually on spot advertising, Charter typically reaches a majority of U.S. households on any given night in the markets they serve. The hospital network spent $800,000 to produce the long-form commercial, said Michael Alvear, Charter's senior executive director of media services.

“One of the things we kept seeing when we were doing reach and frequency reports was that we were reaching 80 to 90 percent of all households in the markets we are in,” said Alvear. “We had an average of 200 gross ratings points a week and yet we knew that call volume was flat over last year. The vast majority of those suffering from alcohol do not call. So we were reaching people, but not moving them.”

Overcoming Denial

The company used existing footage that had been shot almost two years ago for a running supply of material for its ongoing 30-second and two-minute spots. That footage contained testimonials from individuals who were in recovery for either depression or alcoholism.

“For mental health you are dealing with things that you don't deal with for packaged goods,” Alvear said. “Nobody is in denial about toothpaste, but alcoholics tend to be in denial. Clearly, we had some persuading to do and the more we thought about it, the more we realized we couldn't do it in a 60-second spot.”

The Tyee Group, an infomercial production company in Portland, OR, handled the production and media buying.

“We wanted someone who was well-versed in generating response but who had the sensibilities of brand principles, because the thing we had to be very careful about was how to approach people,” Alvear said.

The idea for use of an infomercial was born out of another marketing project for Magellan Health Services, which holds a 50 percent interest in Charter.

“We were going to do an unrelated project for Magellan Health Services in which the idea for an infomercial came up. But infomercials have a past and we had one hell of a time convincing people to do it,” Alvear said.

An 'Emotional Project'

Ultimately, the project was approved and has been met with kudos both internally and externally based on the approach, which encourages targeted viewers to seek help and notes that Charter is a good place to get help.

“The commercial is simplistic in format,” said Tim O'Leary, a managing partner with The Tyee Group. “They are compelling stories. Between the music, art direction and use of light, we try to make it as upbeat as possible. This was the most emotional project we ever worked on. Typically in infomercials there are all kinds of positive hype.

“In this case we wanted to take a very high-end position,” O'Leary said. “We didn't want to hit them over the head to call Charter. We wanted to tell them 'you should probably seek help and Charter is a good place to call for help'.”

Vanity Number Difficulties

The infomercial's call to action prompted viewers to call the company's vanity toll-free number. But while use of the company's long-standing vanity number made it more memorable for viewers, use of the same phone number may create some quantitative challenges for Charter. Direct response marketers will often tag each advertisement with a different toll-free number to track which ad placement is producing the most cost-efficient response, but Charter did not take that step.

“Our biggest problem is right now, we use a vanity number and we are using the same number in the infomercial, so there is a lot of investigative work we have to do before going forward,” Alvear said. “The infomercial was actually 25 percent of all the dollars in any given market and we decided before we start spending more money on media we need to figure out where is it working and why is working.”

But, he said he has seen some indications the program is working, with call volume rising 80 percent in some markets.

“Absolutely this has increased calls,” he said. “There is no question about that. It has failed in some markets, but increased calls in others by 80 percent. Overall, we have clearly moved a needle.”

The company is monitoring call volume to its call center and admissions figures in gross numbers to evaluate the performanc. It has added some subtle questions to agents at the company's call center to determine whether the infomercial prompted the call.

“We have a very specialized call center because 10 percent of calls are suicide calls,” Alveara said. Callers are prompted with questions during consultation with medical personnel who asses the level of care that would be appropriate for the caller.

Inside the organization, the commercial also had an impact. “The other thing it did for us was that the reception internally turned,” Alvear said. “Although at first we were ridiculed, without question it has become the most lauded thing the marketing department has ever done. We made it a requirement that everyone in the company watch it.”

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