The two-minute film – called 'The Inescapable Truth' – was made by creative agency Raw London in partnership with Dignity in Dying, as part of a campaign to petition for a change in the law on assisted dying.
The hard-hitting film, featuring a mother talking to her son about his grandad’s death, was intended to start a discussion about Dignity in Dying’s new report of the same name. However, it has been withdrawn after prompting a backlash over what some called "scaremongering".
Thomas Davies, director of campaigns and communications at Dignity in Dying, told PRWeek: "The objective of the film was to spark an important conversation about the reality of the small number of dying people who will suffer in their final days, and the need for honesty and transparency in discussing people’s end-of-life experiences.
"It has forced stakeholders in the end-of-life care sector to engage with 'The Inescapable Truth' report.
"It has cut through to reach new audiences for the campaign, particularly those with lived experience, who are the people we represent and want to reach. The reaction from the sector to our previous reports about the suffering that goes on at the end of life has been silence.
"In those ways, the film has achieved its objectives, was justified and been a huge success."
In an open letter, Hospice UK chief executive Tracey Bleakley described the campaign film as "misleading and irresponsible".
"It plays on people’s anxiety and fear about the end of life," she wrote. "We are disappointed that sensationalist campaigning has overshadowed a well-written and argued report."
Healthcare professionals and users also took to Twitter to criticise the film, dubbing it "provocative", "counter-productive" and claiming that it "lacks credibility".
However, hundreds of people responded with support for Dignity in Dying and the film, many of them saying they had witnessed first-hand the kind of suffering portrayed in it.
Ed Hardy, creative lead at Raw London, said: "Whether you agree or disagree with the approach, the film is sparking important conversation and debate, and we're proud to have achieved that as one of the primary goals for the campaign."
The film was taken down from Dignity in Dying’s digital accounts on Friday (27 September). Davies said the action was part of an agreement with the charity Hospice UK in a bid to open talks.
Peter Impey, managing director, communications, at healthcare agency 90TEN, said: "It’s a really brave approach to a taboo subject fraught with social, religious and moral complexities.
"While shock tactics can scare people away, for an issue like this where it’s so hard to get people to take notice in the first place, it may have felt like the only option left to start a conversation.
"By taking the video down, it does send a message about how sensitive the debate is. What’s important now is that contributors and supporters of the report can openly communicate their side of the story of what for some is an uncomfortable truth."
Meanwhile, Alex Davies, director at Hanover Communications, said getting the balance right in healthcare comms is like "walking a tightrope".
"Health charities are under huge pressure to make an impact and cut through the noise, focusing minds on the issue that matters to them," he pointed out.
"One clear way of doing this is with content that shocks the viewer and makes them think. The problem comes when you go too far.
"It’s like walking a tightrope, trying to [find a] balance between getting people’s attention and offending them. The key thing to remember is… tread carefully and focus on where you’re trying to get to."
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