Shazam’s Alzheimer’s Blunder

As a society, we’re obsessed with illness. It’s weird. It seems like we have to know what’s wrong with everyone, why it went wrong, and if it’ll happen to us. David Bowie’s cancer wasn’t private – it was ‘secret’, apparently. Brands take note of this, rallying around specific illnesses and diseases seen as ‘popular’ within the public discourse at that time.

Like the Ice Bucket Challenge, for example. That was the ‘in’ thing circa Summer 2014; you dumped ice-cold water on your head, nominated a mate and donated money towards motor neurone disease. Obviously it’s great that an illness was being highlighted, but more often than not it was about getting likes on Facebook and feeling really good about yourself.

And now Alzheimer’s has its turn on the merry-go-round. Again, it’s amazing that brands address illness; not only does it raise awareness, but corporate social responsibility is more important than ever in 2017. The thing is, though, that brands have to ensure they’re using their voice in the right way.

Shazam hasn’t done this. Recently, the music-recognition service started ‘forgetting’ song titles. Turns out it was a campaign, executed to highlight the fact that over 40,000 people under 65 are living with dementia in the UK. It resulted in over 5,000 users following Shazam’s link to Alzheimer’s Research UK’s donation page. Great stuff, right?

Well… not completely. There’s a major flaw: music is one thing Alzheimer’s sufferers seem to clutch onto. Crank up some AC/DC and dementia patients will hum along. Music is a tried and tested method of therapy to soothe patients and, in one case, even prompted a woman with little recognition or awareness to perform a pitch-perfect piano accompaniment. The brain’s motor centre responds directly to auditory rhythmic cues, meaning a familiar track can indeed prompt certain memories to jump out.

So Shazam’s campaign is a bit of a false advertisement – having Alzheimer’s doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll forget song titles. How many of us do that on a daily basis anyway? People forget song titles and lyrics all the time, because your brain can only cram so much stuff in.

If anything, this campaign unintentionally trivialises the illness and casts doubt on what it is. Just like pop culture has romanticised depression and framed people suffering from bi-polar as flipping between moods like the Hulk, Alzheimer’s is being misrepresented and, with something as popular as Shazam, this campaign could lead to people thinking they have symptoms. The NHS is spread thin as it is; it doesn’t need a line of worried musos fretting because they can’t remember the lyrics to a Nine Inch Nails b-side.

Brands: don’t stop trying. Don’t stop fighting the good fight. But please, please think a bit more about what you’re putting out there.