Staff Standpoint | July 2015 Hearing Review

By Karl E. Strom

The famous cartoon of Pogo looking into a mirror with the tagline, “We have met the enemy and he is us” rings true for a recent hearing aid billboard that was displayed in Melbourne, Australia. The billboard showed the black-and-white profile of a beautiful woman’s face with a giant shrimp (oxymoron noted) dangling over her ear. The tagline for the ad said, “HEARING AIDS can be UGLY. Ours are INVISIBLE!” Details about the ad and consumers’ reactions to it can be read in the article “‘Ugly’ Hearing Aid Ad Leaves Parents Fuming” at stuff.co.nz.

ShrimpVictorianHearingAdGive the ad’s sponsor, Victorian Hearing, its due: the ad is striking and devastatingly effective. And it garnered a lot of attention. Unfortunately, the company ended up having to pull it and apologize after consumers vented their rage on social media. The company explained the advertisement was aimed at informing people who might be embarrassed to wear hearing aids that discreet options exist. A statement on their Facebook page says, “Victorian Hearing has, for many years, advertised BTE and traditional hearing aids without any success in helping this large group of people, so we tried something out of the box. Our goal and intention is to help those with hearing loss who are not seeking help due to the stigma. Since we released this add [sic] (which finished this weekend), we have been able to help many who would have never stepped foot inside an audiology clinic as they were not aware of all options available. With this being said, we will be mindful of imagery and messages sent in future campaigns.”

Karl Strom-HR photoWill our industry ever recover from “the hearing aid effect”? Victorian Hearing certainly isn’t alone in promoting the invisibility of hearing aids; you see it in nearly every ad in our field. This despite the fact that, even when ignoring ITEs, the vast majority of people can now choose discreet thin-tube mini-BTEs or RICs—styles that are arguably even less visible than ITCs and some CICs.

Hearing Review published an article by Jean-Pierre Gagné et al in August 2011 that deals with hearing aids and the effects of stigma and self-stigma. The authors make the point that some patients really do need careful counseling on this aspect in order to become successful hearing aid users and, ultimately, to overcome the idea of stigmatization. We also broadcast a webinar in March by British hearing care professional Curtis Alcock on the subject of “Being Normal” that dealt, in some regards, with the stigma issue.

But, in my view, a large proportion of people today don’t give a rip if you wear a hearing aid. In fact, there are so many people—particularly younger people—wearing electronics on their ears and tied to their smartphones, wearables/hearables, etc, that the issue of disability and stigma is receding more quickly than ever. A recent paper by Erik Rauterkus and Catherine Palmer in JAAA suggests the so-called “hearing aid effect”—the term coined in the 1970s for the negative perception others have of those who wear hearing aids—in younger people is essentially dead (see November 24, 2014 Hearing Review Online News).

Society’s attitudes about people with physical challenges in general have changed substantially for the better in the last couple decades. It’s not hard to figure out why. Look around you: we gray-hairs (in my case, no-hairs) are taking over. Today’s baby-boomers don’t like the fact that we need glasses, knee jobs, and hip replacements, but we’re getting them anyway. Why? Because it’s a health and quality of life issue. Baby boomers need to hear, so they will get hearing aids (or PSAPs, wearables, etc). That’s how we roll.

Experts in our field have preached for years about how professionals need to stop calling attention to the “need to hide a hearing aid” or unintentionally conveying shame to hearing loss. In MarkeTrak VIII, Kochkin showed that an “invisible hearing aid” ranked #15 on a 53-item consumer wish-list of hearing aid attributes (March 2012 Hearing Review, p 21).

As an industry, perhaps we’re more traumatized over the stigma issue and the “hearing aid effect” than a good deal of our clients. Maybe it’s time to move on and address stigma only when it’s apparent a prospective client is looking at the hearing aid as if it’s a giant shrimp.

What do you think? Chime in below or send comments to: kstrom@allied360.com

Citation for this article: Strom K. Getting past the “giant shrimp.” Hearing Review. 2015;22(7):6.