Diabetic blogger Paloma Kemak wears her insulin pump in her bra. On a first date, she accidentally left some tubing exposed. It ended badly, when the guy insisted she was wearing the type of wire usually associated with criminal informants.

Then there’s Eliz Martin, an MS advocate who once coded in an emergency room following a reaction to medication. “Hey,” she asked as she came to, only to see her distraught mother sobbing in the corner. “Does my hair look OK?”

And consider the case of Rob Howe, a Dallas comic who often works diabetes jokes into his routine. He started a celebrated, if juvenile, social media sensation by encouraging people to tag him when their glucose monitors registered the internet-funny number of 69.

“It’s super-stupid and immature,” he admits. “But at the same time, low-blood-sugar events are scary. And if we can’t laugh at what happens in our everyday lives, we’re doing something wrong.”

While this may not be news to execs in the healthcare marketing world, they’ve never put that thinking into practice. Indeed, it has taken patients such as Kemak, Martin and Howe to convince them to — finally — lighten up a little.

“Humor humanizes us all,” Martin says. “Just once, I’d like to be treated as a human by the pharmaceutical industry, not as some picnic bear.”

Martin and her peers believe the industry is changing, albeit slowly. Wunderman Thompson Health EVP and chief creative officer Tuesday Poliak notes that, over the course of the last few years, campaigns designed to elicit giggles have earned plenty of praise and awards. Some of her favorites include the legitimately funny World’s Biggest Asshole for Donate Life and Takeda’s Lighter Blue, an unbranded effort for depression.

Just once, I’d like to be treated as a human by the pharmaceutical industry, not as some picnic bear.

Eliz Martin, MS advocate

“It’s true pharma is highly sensitive and that the business deals with life and death,” Poliak says. “But so does car insurance — and as that field has gotten more competitive, brands learned that using humor was a great way to be memorable. Competition is pushing pharma there, as well, but it’s going to take some time.”

2e Creative CEO Ross Toohey agrees, adding, “It’s so well documented that humor is a way to feel better. It helps people cope with difficult emotions and promotes healing.” That’s why he believes it is “imperative” for pharma marketers to figure out a way to work humor in their mix.

“We’re in the business of making people smile,” Toohey continues. “The best brands are evolving to be more human, and humans like to laugh. It’s going to be hard to figure out, but we need to get there.”

Of course, pharma has long enjoyed moments in which, if its work wasn’t exactly laugh-out-loud funny, it at least achieved something akin to “vaguely clever.” Jay Carter, AbelsonTaylor’s EVP of business development, recalls a long-ago pitch for a drug that combined a Valium-like tranquilizer with conjugated estrogen. The tagline? The Menopause That Refreshes.

Pharma is, of course, used to being on the receiving end of jokes, given the parodies its ads have inspired. “How can you not laugh at an ad showing a family having a great time at dinner while the voiceover is going through deadly side effects?” Martin quips.

And a decade of patients openly sharing symptoms on social media has helped pharma relax about bodily functions. Younger consumers devour content about periods, mental health, clogged sinuses and elimination. This is, after all, the generation that embraced Poo Pourri, the Squatty Potty and poop emoji throw pillows.

But while consumers may yearn for yuks, Toohey says the industry will always have to pull back from the most outlandish ideas. “It’s important to be respectful of people who are living with a given disease or condition. That’s why so many people criticized South Dakota’s Meth. I’m On It campaign as tone-deaf. It came across as poking fun at meth addicts.”

Martin, who chronicles her MS with wit and verve at @thesparkledlife, says part of the challenge is that healthcare marketers try too hard to be both earnest and sincere, traits that tend to get comics booed off the stage.

“We have this culture of talk positivity,” she explains. “You always have to be on and feeling good — and that’s not the same as humor. Humor can be in any of the human emotions and it can help shine light on anything, even distress, in a way that is helpful. Me, I’m sarcastic. I use humor to explain the bad without being victimized by it. It helps reveal the severity without letting it control the narrative.”

 The battle lines have been drawn, more or less. Cartoon characters — a woebegone kidney here, a grouchy stomach there — are typically safe. “The animated Cologuard ad running now is pure bathroom humor,” Carter enthuses. Human clumsiness, new parents and destination weddings are also benign targets, as evidenced by United Healthcare’s massive new campaign.

But it’s all too common for ads that wink-wink at consumers to fall flat, especially in the health realm. “Remember those early Levitra ads with the guy throwing a football through a tire?” Carter asks. “Not. Funny.”

Humor breaks down walls around facing a condition you might have and encourages people to get tested.

Katie Baldwin, Wunderman Thompson Health

Howe understands. He says that despite the breadth of his body of work — the panels on which he’s been featured, his well-regarded Diabetics Doing Things podcast and seven years of stand-up and improv — he finds it funny “that the most popular thing I’ve done is the 69 joke. It’s immature and silly, and that’s why people like it.” He pauses, then adds with a laugh: “And boy, that makes me happy.”

Outside its timeless appeal to certain audiences, middle-school innuendo can be translated into high-impact creative. By way of example, Wunderman Thompson Health business director Katie Baldwin points to the much-loved Manboobs campaign, which comically circumvented social media censorship of women’s nipples.

“Humor breaks down walls around facing a condition you might have and encourages people to get tested,” she says.

 That’s why Baldwin believes humor is an ideal tactic in unbranded communications and awareness campaigns, like those for breast cancer, as well as ones for chronic conditions. “When it comes to chronic conditions, people won’t persevere unless they can laugh a little,” she adds.

Baldwin also thinks that most advertising around depression and anxiety serves as a nifty metaphor for pharma’s fear of the funny bone. “Some of the most creative people — the best writers, the most talented artists — have depression. But when pharma overdramatizes the problem, they pretend people are single-faceted,” she says. “It’s why we don’t connect with people. So to me, the question is, ‘How do we bring the whole person into the conversation, instead of just the ailment that we’re talking about?’”

There are, of course, places in which humor doesn’t work. Carter can’t conceive of a circumstance in which cancer can be played for laughs. Kemak, who writes at @glitterglucose, says she can’t envision making a crack about complications from diabetes, like blindness or amputation.

Poliak, though, thinks it’s time for brands to stop being so timid. “We’re going to have to get more ballsy,” she says. “And once brands see that campaigns can be funny in ways that are sensitive and not ostracizing, the flood gates are going to open. People in the industry are going to be happy about it. Who doesn’t like laughter?”

What can’t be forgotten is that the healthcare world, just like the worlds of finance and art and politics, is populated by more than its share of genuinely witty people. 

“A few doctors I sold to were truly funny. They have to be. They deal with people all day long,” says Marc Theobald, a stand-up comic who used to sell drugs for Endo International. “They’d tell me jokes and loved it when I tried jokes on them.”

But while he says that most of the sales and marketing people he met enjoyed a ribald bit, Theobald — a writer for The Last O.G., a TV comedy starring Tracy Morgan and Tiffany Haddish — adds that, “Honestly, I don’t think there’s much room for humor.” He notes that commercial budgets are notoriously tight. And in an industry when today’s touted new medication can become tomorrow’s nightmare headline, ads that strive for exalted “funny” status represent too high a risk for most organizations.

“One of the medications I sold was hydrocodone, for example,” he recalls. “At the time, we thought it was safer than some of the alternatives. Imagine how bad they’d feel now if they had used jokes to sell it?”

However, Theobald does happily offer advice to frustrated pharma marketers who haven’t been able to work humor into their campaigns. “Leave the business,” he says. “Go into comedy.”