My #1 Pet Peeve With Rehab Marketing

My 1 Pet Peeve With Rehab Marketing.png

I have something important to get off my chest. Everybody stand back.

What I’m about to share with you has been bothering me for a very long time. It started off as a vague dislike and crystallized into what I can only describe as an intense crusade.

Now that I think about it, this crusade might just be what sparked my career in marketing and copywriting for rehabs and other addiction treatment providers.

OK, team. There’s a lot to love about addiction treatment marketing.

Sad, blurry, monochromatic photos of a loser in a hoodie isn’t one of them.  He's been bugging me—big time.

Generic Addict Guy

You know the guy I’m talking about.

You’ve seen him a million times on billboards, online and on TV. He’s “generic addict guy.”  

It’s this guy:

sad addict guy being sad


(Note: I’ve blotted out any identifiers to protect the innocent.)

There he is, sad and suffering “generic addict guy” deep in his disease. Poor sad addict guy.

Notice that he’s always alone. He’s always looking down. He’s always averting or covering his eyes somehow. And—this part is actually kind of weird—he is usually sporting cozy, casual headgear of some kind.  

Here he is in his (or her?) hoodie on this banner ad:

sad addict guy or gal in another example of lackluster addiction treatment marketing

Again: dark, alone, sad, being a bit creepy. In monochromatic black and white. With headgear!

(On the plus side, at least this one has a solid call to action. “Get Help Now” reflects exactly what your lead is trying to do. So, bonus points there.)

Oh, look, here he is again, but this time he swapped a beanie for his hoodie:

addict looking sad in another advertisement

Yet again, we see our “hero”—the guy who is supposed to be the visual representation of your lead!—in the deepest part of their dark, dark despair.

Had enough? Let’s pause for a minute here.

What Generic Addict Guy Actually Gets Right...and So, So Wrong

In fairness, there are a few things “generic addict guy” gets right.

It can be a real bummer being an addict in active addiction. It’s isolating. It’s depressing.

It may involve some comfortable and cozy headgear.

Fair enough—but is that what you’re selling?

Are you really selling despair to losers?

Heck, no. (At least I sure hope not!)

Here’s the thing: no one identifies with “generic addict guy.” That’s a big problem.

Successful marketing makes your lead feel the things they need to feel in order to buy your product or service. You don’t want your leads to feel sad and isolated when they consider doing business with you. You want them to feel safe, hopeful, confident, and understood.

That’s what you’re selling, right? Freedom from addiction. A chance to repair what’s been broken. A solution to a problem that seems impossible to solve. Winning. At. Life.

“Generic addict guy” doesn’t sell that. “Generic addict guy” says: “Hi there, Mr. Addict. I Googled ‘junkie’ and found this sad sack picture! This is you, right?”

Yikes. How insulting!

Big Problem: Generic Addict Guy Isn’t Human

Your leads are complex, talented humans who happen to have a disease. “Generic addict guy” isn’t a complex person—he’s a cartoon character representing a disease.

In fact, he’s barely even human.

He doesn’t remind me of your patients or alumni. He reminds me of this spooky monster gal from The Ring:

scary ring girl demonstrating subhuman vibe

He also kinda reminds me a bit of this Star Wars arch baddie:

star wars guy another example of subhuman vibe.

See where I’m going here?

“Generic addict guy” isn’t a human HERO, he’s more like a subhuman villain.

In Marketing, Story is Everything

When you watch a movie like The Ring or Star Wars, do you see the story through the eyes of the big baddie? Here's another way of looking at it: Do you feel sad or relieved when the bad guy dies?

Sure, we occasionally root for the bad guy. But more often than not, it’s the hero who best represents the values, ideals, and struggles that we hold dear. It doesn’t matter if the main character is named Frodo or Batman, we love good stories because they are always about us in some important way. When the hero wins, we win.

Story is hands-down THE best way to connect with leads but only when the main character of that story is the lead. That means that your lead absolutely needs to identify with the “you” in the story.

How “Generic Addict Guy” Gets the Story Wrong

Humans don’t tend to identify with monochromatic creepers in hoodies. Nobody sees themselves as the bad guy in their story. There are no evil heroes. We all want to get as far away from spooky loners in hoodies as possible.

The same goes for your leads.

When you throw a picture of “generic addict guy” up there, all you’re doing is creating more distance between you and your lead. You’re communicating that you don’t understand who they are and what their story is—and that you don’t even care to learn. Ouch.

“Generic addict guy” pics feel out-of-touch, lazy, and judgmental. Definitely not the qualities we want associated with your rehab!

Telling The Right Story The Right Way

“Fine,” you’re thinking. “But It seems dumb to completely leave out the dark side of addiction.”

You’re right. That is dumb.

Addiction is dark. It’s important to demonstrate you understand what a huge impact addiction has on your leads’ lives.

Most of that impact isn’t pretty.

The good news is there are lots of ways to connect with your lead around their struggle in a human way that doesn’t involve pics of “generic addict guy.”

Shareable blog posts about specific problems (i.e. 10 Sneaky Ways Addiction Destroys Your Relationships) drive traffic, build SEO, and cultivate relationships with leads. Email marketing campaigns deepen those relationships with more honest copy about your lead’s disease, again, building trust and inviting them into even deeper relationship with you. HIPAA complaint quizzes or surveys let leads gamify self-reflection and offer a fun, low-stakes way to enter into conversation with you.

There are so many ways to talk about the problem without resorting to a photo of a loner in a hoodie.

Conclusion: Ditch “Generic Addict Guy” Already

So, folks, stop trying to use “generic addict guy” to sell recovery to humans.

It’s over. It’s not working. It never worked.

Let’s put “generic addict guy” away and never let him into our marketing materials ever again.

If that doesn’t work, I say shove him back down the well or light saber him.


Erin Gilday