How Cancer Research UK uses Impactful Storytelling

  • Posted by info 04 Jan

How Cancer Research UK uses Impactful Storytelling

Cancer Research is a charity that, in addition to being renowned for its work in saving lives and increasing the survival rates of cancer victims, produces some incredible media content. Its videos are both promotional and impactful, something that many charities and businesses struggle to achieve.

One of the key ways it has managed this is through telling pitch perfect stories, and using well thought out and executed storytelling techniques in its videos. Time and time again it has been able to grip its audience through personal accounts, metaphors, interesting reveals, and a plethora of other poignant practices.

In the end the effectiveness of Cancer Research’s storytelling cannot be put down to one particular aspect, but is the combination of several key things. Very often the things that Cancer Research gets right are exactly what many other charities and brands miss out on in including in their own media. These are things that are not expensive, are not missed out on due to a lack of budget, but are more missing due to rushed campaigns that put too much emphasis on straightforward promotion, and not enough in making the media effective and unique, things that must be thought of in the conceptual stage, and cherished throughout the production and campaign execution.

Here are some of the ways Cancer Research makes it work:

Balanced Optimism

Using emotion is now ubiquitous with advertising and promotion. However, Cancer Research has a potentially difficult hurdle to surpass to do this.

Cancer is an incredibly serious subject. It is something that people generally don’t want to think about during their day to day activities. Furthermore, it can be incredibly grim. However, none of Cancer Research’s stories are wholly grim.

The subject matter in their videos varies in tone; but they are never unremittingly bleak, and even in the saddest of stories a silver lining is sought.

Cancer hospital bed

Balancing optimism happens in different ways depending on the story being told. In an overall optimistic testimonial video the difficulties are always discussed. For example in Amy’s Story, an account of surviving cancer and being able to get back to living life, a point is made of showing the struggle of this process; talking about the anxiety after the all clear at 30 seconds into the video and upset at taking hormone replacements at 1:17 are two clear examples of this. Conversely, a bleaker video, such as Roger’s Story ends with the contributor expressing hope for others.

However, Cancer Research’s most effective use of optimism balance to date has been their recent Right Now campaign. This campaign was spearheaded by a TV advert that was released on Christmas Eve 2015. This advert is essentially a montage of footage of real life people with cancer, showing medical professionals interacting with them, and doing their best to help them. Some of the shots in the advert are harrowing; however a life affirming message prevails, with good news being delivered to patients, and with people getting through their illnesses.

The Right Now campaign is expanded online, with Cancer Research’s YouTube channel hosting an expanded playlist of cancer patients’ experiences being shown in different ways. These videos all fit in with the theme of showing optimism to greater and lesser extents in their subject matter. That this balanced optimism is integral to Cancer Research is backed up by statements made by Cancer Research’s Marketing and Communication’s Director Anthony Newman to Marketing Week. “What we want is people feeling hopeful and optimistic about the future and we expect to see people feeling sad as well. We are judging the work by whether it elicits a powerful emotional response that touches the heart first, then the head, then the hand.”

Right Now

Active Questions

Active questions are a key tool that is used by novelists and screenwriters to keep a viewer hooked, and to build tension. They work by keeping the viewer asking questions about what they see and hear on screen. For example “Will they get away with it?”, “What is it that this character is so scared of?”, “How did they get into this situation?” are oft used active questions. The book or film’s following plot will spend its duration answering these questions. Cancer Research also uses active questions to great effect.

In this Cancer Research video the active question is “what are these children talking about?” Wide arrays of children discuss an unseen thing. All their comments make this thing seem really appealing to them. Viewers will try to guess what they are referring to; the obvious answer would be a new toy or children’s product. Exactly halfway through the video the tables are turned and the active question is answered. The children are talking about cigarette packaging.  It is a shocking answer, and one that is delivered with a huge impact, all because of the way that the active question was set up and then answered. The result is so impactful that only a tobacco company would seek to criticize the way it was presented.

Furthermore, that campaign achieved results. In May 2016 standardised packaging shall be implemented onto tobacco products in the UK; in no small part due to that remarkably effective video.

Cancer Research also masterfully mixes active questions with metaphor. An example of this is their Advertising Campaign called The Lump. At first the video appears to be completely unrelated to cancer. It is real life footage of pedestrians walking down a street. A small bump in the pavement appears. As days pass it gets larger. Pedestrians continue to ignore its presence as it grows larger. By the end of the video the lump has grown into an incredibly large bulge, yet people still ignore it and avoid it. Throughout this time the active question “What is this bulge?” is raised. The end screen states “It’s easy to ignore something, especially when we’re busy. But spotting cancer sooner could save your life.” It becomes obvious to the viewer that the answer to the question is that the lump in the ground is a metaphor for a cancerous growth that could easily be ignored until it has blown out of proportion.


The vast majority of Cancer Research’s online videos are shorter than three minutes in length. In fact, the top twenty most viewed videos on their YouTube channel are all shorter than two minutes in length, with the most viewed video of all time only being 30 seconds long.

The reason why Cancer Research tends to produce shorter videos is because they know a universal truth with online video promotion; that attention spans are short. This means that Cancer Research must tell stories in the quickest timeframe possible.

Take their most successful video, Alfie’s Bath as an example. It is part of their new Right Now campaign, which aims to show how Cancer Research is tackling cases of cancer right now. There is no expository dialogue, the story is told visually.

At first it seems that Alfie’s Bath is a simple video, but on a closer inspection it is anything but. It uses both balanced optimism and active questions. The opening shot looks out of a window, with a drip being visible. A female voice sings “row row row your boat”. The audience is left wondering what is happening in this scene. The camera pans down to reveal a very young child that is being bathed by a medical worker, which answers the active question. Subsequent shots focus on the equipment being used on the child during the bath. The subject of the video could be depressing, but by establishing that the child is being cared for, is happy, and is receiving treatment; it is positive and motivating as well.

This video, in terms of views, has had the largest impact for Cancer Research.

Not all stories can be told this quickly, but all are told in as succinct a manner as possible.


Cancer Research’s videos are filled with relatable touches that make the stories more real for their viewers. Like optimism balance, relatability manifests itself in different ways depending on the tone and implementation of the video.

The most obvious example of this is in the testimonial videos. Going back to Amy’s Story, there are many things that are done to make the viewer connect to the person on screen. Footage is shown of Amy in Scarborough where she lives, enjoying time on the beach with her father; and in the final third of the video much of the footage is made up of showing the viewer pictures of Amy’s wedding day, showing the positive result of the cancer survival in an event that most people can relate to, as most people aspire to marry, or have at least attended weddings.

Relatability is also present in all other videos discussed. In Alfie’s Story everyone can relate to entertaining a young infant, and singing to cheer them up; in The Lump everyone can relate to seeing but ignoring strange occurrences in public settings; in the standardised packaging campaign everyone can relate to kids enthusiastically talking about things they are presented with; and the Right Now advert is filled with relatable scenes, such as children sitting and drawing at desks, people reading magazines in waiting rooms, people being happy when they hear good news.

These techniques are very clever, and take lots of thought and attention to detail to get right, but on the whole they are not outlandishly expensive or difficult to organize. They are a great example of how well thought out promotion can lead to huge successes.



Please Note: We had no involvement in the Cancer Research UK campaigns or videos in this blog post, we just LoveLove love them!

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