The elimination of pain, the treatment of the sick and injured, and the containment of disease are all social objectives that have been promoted or affected by advertising and print advocacy.
The early manufacturers of patent medicines were pioneers in the commercial branding and national advertising of their products. Originally distributed by peddlers and traveling entertainers, patent medicines began to be sold by mail order and by local druggists and general merchants in the late 19th century. These brand name concoctions – some of which contained alcohol, morphine and cocaine – were aggressively advertised in Canadian newspapers and magazines with attention grabbing illustrations and slogans.
The promotion of health products (drugs, natural health products and medical devices) is now closely regulated by Health Canada’s Health Products and Food Branch. The promotion of prescription drugs to consumers is strictly limited and advertising material for nonprescription drugs directed at consumers must be reviewed and precleared as meeting the department’s recommended standards.
During the settlement era access to medical and dental services was limited by the shortage of qualified professionals and by the rudimentary state of the roads to many small communities. Some doctors, dentists, and opticians did travel regularly to smaller towns and villages, advertising in advance their upcoming visits with postcard announcements.
The improvement of medical services was a major goal of early farmer progressives. For example feminist Violet McNaughton (1879-1968), president of the Women Grain Growers in Saskatchewan, advocated for the establishment of publicly funded hospitals and community doctor programs in which physicians might be paid an annual retainer fee by local municipalities.
When it came to power in Saskatchewan in 1944, the CCF implemented a program of hospital insurance. In 1961 the Saskatchewan government implemented universal medical care insurance, a move which was met with firm resistance by the majority of the province’s doctors and by many business leaders. The ‘Medicare Crisis’ saw the distribution of thousands of pamphlets by both proponents and opponents of this reform.
Today’s Medicare system enjoys a high level of public support with many citing it as a defining characteristic of Canadian identity; detractors have described it as a "sacred cow". Concerns have been raised about the sustainability of Medicare in the face of such factors as an aging population, raised expectations for treatment, and the escalating cost of drugs and medical technology. Stakeholders, including service providers, have advocated for increased funding and for a variety of changes or adjustments to the program’s delivery and/or underlying principles.
One response to the soaring cost of medical treatment has been a renewed interest in prevention programs. Research indicates that many conditions and diseases could be prevented and their treatments made more effective and less costly by changes in lifestyle situations and behavioral choices. Frequently recommended are more nutritional diet choices, increased physical activity, control of obesity, cessation of smoking, use of bicycle helmets and safety belts, and the practice of safer sex options.
One of the earliest and most successful of such public wellness programs was ParticipACTION, established in 1972 to get Canadians up off their sofas and moving. The campaign is best remembered for a 1973 ad comparing the fitness of a 60 year old Swede to that of 30 year old Canadians.
Those promoting wellness changes in marginalized communities face several challenges. Public health messages have traditionally been delivered in a single kind of polite language, most appropriate to white educated suburbanites. Effective marketing to marginalized groups requires a willingness to talk in the language of one’s audience and to understand the values and social experiences that affect its behavior.
A positive example is Health Canada’s new version of the Eating Well Canada Food Guide, adapted for First Nations, Inuit and Métis populations. The adapted guide is illustrated with images of Indigenous people and integrates traditional foods, and foods commonly found in contemporary Indigenous diets.
Language and cultural issues beset many of the initial public health responses to the AIDS pandemic and efforts to promote safer sexual behaviors. AIDS leaflets were sometimes written in such euphemistic or proper language that lifesaving information may have been obscured by class indifference or bias.
Many groups working on AIDS prevention in gay communities produced their own literature. They condemned as ineffective AIDS pamphlets produced by public health professionals that displayed little awareness of the dynamics and diversity of the gay community and its understandings of sex, and that did not affirm the value of gay men’s lives.