Getting Graphic

Jan 01, 2009
By Pharmaceutical Executive


Bob Brown
When the National Kidney Foundation was looking for a more effective way to educate patients about the challenges of dialysis, they decided to take a unique approach: They created a graphic novel to achieve their desired results.

Graphic novels, the combination of a comic book and a novel, have come a long way since first appearing in the 19th century. In 1986, Art Spiegelman's graphic novel Maus won the Pulitzer Prize for literature. More recently, Hollywood has adapted numerous graphic novels into films. Today, the genre has entered the medical marketing and education world as a potentially excellent tool to communicate a message.

Why Go Graphic?

Graphic novels communicate more clearly, simply, and effectively than many other communication vehicles. As a result, they reach diverse audiences, adapt to multiple media, and make complex ideas simple.

The graphic novel can appeal to almost everyone from kids and adults to consumers and professionals. They communicate to any and all reading levels—from far below average to the most sophisticated. The "pictographic" nature of the graphic novel even makes it one of the few tools that can reach the non-reader. The graphic novel appeals to people who have no access to, or no interest in, a computer. Yet the genre also can adapt to a rich, interactive experience that appeals to the most avid computer user. And in a graphic novel, traditional rules can be broken. For example, people don't have to be black, white, or brown; they can be orange. That definitely redefines "diversity advertising."

The graphic novel can be printed—as a book, a series of comic books or comic strips, flyers, or posters. It can also be taped to the wall, handed out, mailed, projected at a meeting, posted on the Web, filmed for TV, or adapted for PowerPoint or keynote presentations. You get the versatile point! It can even be recreated "live" for special events. Furthermore, a target audience can experience a graphic novel in virtually any setting. It requires no special equipment, laptop, or television. It can be read casually or studiously, in private or public. It can be an individual's personal experience, or shared.

In serial form, the graphic novel supports substantial character and plot development, plus the exploration of complex subject matter. Over a series, a graphic novel can introduce several characters in multiple situations exploring a wide range of issues. When a vehicle that was once perceived as escapist entertainment addresses intellectually and emotionally complex issues in a mature way, the impact can be powerful. A good graphic novel can illuminate a topic, change behavior, sell a product, and teach buyers how to use it (or sellers how to sell it).

Hope & Main

As a child, you may have received small comic-style books from your doctor or dentist that covered subjects such as vaccinations, hygiene, or toothbrushing. These were forerunners of the graphic novellas being implemented today in medical marketing and education. Two examples stand out as major milestones—one from the 1990s and one that launched over a year ago and is currently running nationally.

In the '90s, the New York City Health Department developed a black-and-white comic strip series called Decision that followed characters dealing with HIV. The strips initially appeared in subway cars, and then were compiled into comic book form for handout. When the third issue invited readers to suggest the next events in the evolving story, the health department was inundated with suggestions. After several more issues, the health department decided to stop making Decisions, but it became regarded as a breakthrough in new applications for the graphic novel form and remembered as a very effective campaign.

In 2007, the National Kidney Foundation developed a graphic novella called Hope & Main, the "first reality series of, by, and for the dialysis community." Hope & Main serves as a centerpiece of an ambitious multimedia campaign. A pharmaceutical company funded the first year (six installments) of Hope & Main with a non-restricted educational grant. Their goals were to 1) support a unique solution to the need for "pictographic" education about dialysis issues, and 2) strengthen the company's marketing position in the dialysis community.