CDC enlists comedian to embrace the awkwardness of gynecology visits—and encourage women to go

Comedian Amber Ruffin (right) tells her gynecologist about her fears in one of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's webisodes from the six-video series "Under the Paper Gown." (Ogilvy)

Going to the gynecologist can be embarrassing, weird and uncomfortable, but thanks to a new Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) web series with comedian Amber Ruffin, it can also be funny—and relatable.

The six-video series “Under the Paper Gown” also stars Ruffin's sister, Lacey, and takes the pair on a journey from being unable to fathom how to put on the titular gown to the importance of family history and finding the right doctor.

The last episode features Ruffin considering herself an "expert" and confident enough to encourage her sister to ask everything she needs to know during her routine appointment.

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The CDC tapped ad agency Ogilvy DC to create the series as part of the center's ongoing work on the “Inside Knowledge About Gynecologic Cancer” campaign, which started in 2008. The project aims to educate women about the five main gynecologic cancers: cervical, ovarian, uterine, vaginal and vulvar.

While gynecologist visits for pap smears are necessary, that test only covers cervical cancer. Diagnosis of other gynecologic cancers often rely on women reporting symptoms to their doctors and asking questions in person. The goal of Inside Knowledge is not only to get women to their appointments but also to make the visit a less passive experience.

The new Ruffin campaign is particularly timely. Cancer screenings dropped 94% during the COVID-19 pandemic's stay-at-home orders. Even after the mandates lifted, the screening rate has been 35% below historical averages. The National Institutes of Health estimates 40,000 cervical cancer screenings were missed between March and June 2020 alone.

Ruffin is a trailblazing comedian, with her own show on NBC’s Peacock. She's also the first Black female writer for a late-night network talk show and co-authored a New York Times bestselling book with her sister, making her the perfect choice to star in the series, said Monica Parada, senior art director at Ogilvy DC.

“She's able to deconstruct hard conversations and topics and make them accessible and digestible in a humorous way but still respectful to sensitive conversations,” Parada noted.

Ogilvy’s predominately female team worked closely with Ruffin and her writing partner, Jenny Hagel, along with the CDC. While the videos might seem light and silly, the topic and intent—encouraging women to get more comfortable talking to their gynecologist—is not.

Libby Dwyer, Ogilvy DC’s group strategy director, said, “It's easy to know that we need to make people aware of these very important gynecological cancers, and they're diagnosed through conversations at the doctor—with a gynecologist. That's a very simple fact, but it's actually a really deep and challenging barrier."

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The six webisodes can be found on the CDC’s YouTube page and website. Ogilvy also created shorter trailers, compiling content from all the videos to use in paid ads. Ruffin is posting the short clips on her social media pages, and Ogilvy is placing them in digital media to drive viewers to the video series on YouTube. The ultimate goal, of course, is to get women to go to the gynecologist.

So far, the response is overwhelmingly positive. Ogilvy DC Vice President Jackie Stewart said when she read the comments under Ruffin's posting, the response was exactly what they wanted. Comments including “this is hilarious,” “great reminder,” “I love that you're doing this,” and, most importantly, “I’m making my appointment now” point to the success of the campaign.

The CDC is so pleased that it is planning to post the work on its main social media channels during September, which is Gynecologic Cancer Awareness Month.

This isn’t the first time Ogilvy has used humor to tackle awkward medical situations. In June, the company launched “Bums and the Bees” for the CDC to encourage Generation Xers to get screened for colorectal cancer.