Sunnybrook Tells its Story

Toronto narratologists certainly must be noticing Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre’s narrative-based fund-raising campaign. You can see the ads on television, on radio, in print, and, if you’ve missed them in the media, on the Sunnybrook Foundation’s website (

Sunnybrook, located in the Don Valley in suburban Toronto, was established as a veterans’ hospital after World War II. While still retaining its veterans’ wing, it has now evolved into a major research and teaching hospital, and is affiliated with the University of Toronto’s downtown-based University Health Network. I think the separate location and identity have encouraged Sunnybrook to adopt innovative approaches, in this case in development.

As part of its Campaign for Sunnybrook, the Sunnybrook Foundation has developed six narrative-based ads dealing with trauma, burns, a stroke, a heart attack, and breast and cervical cancer. The ads combine words spoken by a gentle-voiced male narrator, images of the patients being treated at Sunnybrook (as well as pictures of their families), and background music that evokes both anxiety and calm.

The stories have the following narrative and textual structure: this is the medical problem, this is the response by Sunnybrook’s doctors or treatment teams, this is the patient (sometimes shown being treated), this is the patient’s family, and this is the patient recovering. They then conclude with a gentle exhortation, “to learn more about life-saving Sunnybrook innovations, visit our website,” as well as the slogan “innovation when it matters most,” and the message in text, “give – invest — support.”

Let’s look at this in a bit more detail. The medical problems are sometimes catastrophic events, such as a car crash (trauma) or industrial accident (burn), and sometimes medical images understood only by experts (brain scans, CAT scans, or mammograms). The Sunnybrook physicians or treatment teams are the heroes who bring patients back from the brink of death. The patients are sometimes shown being treated in a high tech-high touch operating theatre (trauma, burn, stroke, heart attack) and sometimes just showing anxiety (cancer). The family members (spouses, children, a newborn infant of a woman being treated for cervical cancer) represent the human stakes, those to whom the patient is most connected, the patient’s rationale for recovery. (The only instance where there is not a family is the auto crash, where instead we see a determined young woman learning to walk with a prosthesis that has replaced an amputated leg.)

These are all redemptive fables of the kind I referred to in my post last week about The King’s Speech. The individual redemption refers to the patient and his or her family: the patient is healed and can resume his or her role in the family, continuing to provide for family members who rely on him or her. The institutional aspect of redemption refers to Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre. To continue to provide the heroic medical practice referred to in the narratives, it needs resources that go beyond normal base budget funding from the government.

The Sunnybrook ads resonate with me and I imagine they would resonate with most people (something that could be tested in focus groups or with sophisticated brain monitoring technology). I’m sure the ads are successful at raising public awareness about Sunnybrook, in particular about the variety of leading-edge treatments it delivers. Do these narrative-based ads bring in more support than other types of advertising? I don’t know, but as the local narratologist, I’d be interested in finding out.

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