Graham W. Brimhall’s very lucky day

I’ve been sold a lot of ridiculous stuff in my life. Elaborate devices to correct my golf swing. A combination vegetable slicer/clock radio. A needless war in the desert. But few approached the unsolicited sales pitch that arrived in my mailbox a while back.

It came in a plain white envelope with an eye-catching teaser: “Free Prepaid Cremation!DETAILS INSIDE.” Naturally, I tore it open, half expecting to get a puff of promotional ash in my face. But nestled within, under a picture of a spreading elm tree in a peaceful meadow, was just a simple message from “America’s Cremation Specialists.”

Cremation, as you may know, is the fiery process by which the human body, sans soul, is transformed into pulverized bone fragments and embalmment savings. More simply, it’s a high fever plus 1700 degrees. What’s left after the fire is usually placed for permanent display purposes in an ornamental urn, Mason jar, or Tupperware® Vent ‘N Serve container, or scattered over a golf course because “it’s what Larry would have wanted.”

So that’s what I was being offered-a free flaming ticket to the great beyond. The letter was extremely helpful, detailing the cremation rate in my state and offering bullet points on exactly why this option makes so darn much sense. I found out, for instance, that it’s the environmentally friendly solution-“greener” than a cemetery lawn. To underscore the point, it was printed on recycled paper, probably from old casket catalogs.

I wasn’t sure how I got on their mailing list, and was initially disturbed by that. Did they know something I didn’t? Was an Obama death panel even now reviewing my file? Fortunately, “America’s Cremation Specialists” had a sensitive side. “Please accept our apologies if this letter has reached you at a time of serious illness or death in your family,” I read, relieved that I was clearly a random recipient.

After careful consideration, I made my decision. I’ve never liked the idea of spending eternity buried cold and alone on a windswept hillside-it sounds too much like my childhood in Canada. So it didn’t take long for them to win me over. I eagerly returned the response card to be eligible for the monthly drawing, which apparently was most recently won by a Mr. Graham W. Brimhall. I haven’t heard yet if I was chosen, or if Mr. Brimhall has redeemed his prize.

But while I wait for the good news, the experience has me thinking. Perhaps nursing homes could learn something from this innovative and gutsy campaign. On the list of taboo subjects no one wants to talk about, long-term care ranks right up there with funeral planning. If the cremationists have the nerve to mount a nationwide advertising offensive on behalf of their stigmatized profession, why shouldn’t we?

I think it’s a great idea, and I’m assigning the job to the two national associations-AHCA and AAHSA-as well as to the National Association of Long-Term Care Associations (NALTCA). Their mission: to make the public perception of nursing homes at least as positive as cremation. With a bar that low, I don’t see how they can fail. And because I care about the future of this profession, I’ve put together some helpful examples drawn from other successful marketing campaigns. There’s no need to reinvent the wheel, after all, when the best ideas are easily stolen.

One popular approach is to use colorful words to create a new reality. An example would be the major hotel chain that throws the word “heavenly” in front of every feature, whether or not it’s true. This occurred to me as I lay awake in my “heavenly” room next to the “heavenly” elevator shaft listening to the “heavenly” drunk people next door jump on the “heavenly” bed for half the night.

The best part about this option is that you don’t have to necessarily change anything about the way you do business. You just choose a few random adjectives and write your ad. For instance: “At Muskrat Terrace, you’ll awaken to the celestial sounds of the ambrosial med cart with the rapturously broken wheel flapping blissfully down the ravishing tile hallway in the gloriously institutional light.” Or something like that.

Or here’s another idea: Let’s do a late-night infomercial. We’ll market nursing homes like The BeDazzler-a product you can’t possibly need but wind up desperately wanting in spite of yourself. I realize ours is the opposite problem-selling a product no one wants to admit they’ll ever need-but the concept is the same. Just BeDazzle that faded, shapeless image with sparkly new selling points.

Since people aren’t interested in the critical services and compassionate care actually provided in a nursing home, you’ll want to apply some twinkling rhinestones. Forget about what you really do. That’s irrelevant and unpleasant. BeDazzle your campaign instead with “complimentary level parking.” Snap, Push, Pop. “Indoor dining.” Snap, Push, Pop. “Steroid-free caregivers.” Snap, Push, Pop. “Clean and healthy regulators.” Snap. Push. Pop. Suddenly that tired old “caring for America’s frail and vulnerable elders” message is all shiny and fabulous.

Personally, I think the best approach is to market nursing homes like wine. I live in Walla Walla, Washington, so everywhere I turn there’s a stuck-up stranger sticking his nose in a glass, swirling the stuff around and trying to sound like an expert wine reviewer. “This syrah/cabernet/carrot juice blend is incredibly complex,” he’ll say with unearned gravitas. “It explodes in my mouth like a bug bomb, with peppery flavors of parsnips, diesel, and anchovies lingering on my exquisitely perceptive palate.”

That’s the kind of snooty image we need to create for this profession-one that’s elite and inaccessible. Something like, “The Benches at Powerline Meadows will linger on your memory with an essence of exceptional quality outcomes against a tapestry of passion, energy, and friendliness. The service is silky and seamless, and the caregiving blossoms through the long, compassionate finish.” You get the idea. And don’t forget to mention that five-cork rating from Nursing Home Compare.

Gary Tetz is a legendary long-term care commentator based in Walla Walla, Washington.

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Long-Term Living 2009 October;58(10):56-57

Topics: Articles