What's to come for RPA's imaginary friends effort to help kids with cancer

The campaign has had tremendous impact since launching last fall.

Every three minutes, a child is diagnosed with cancer. 

It’s estimated that more than 300,000 kids around the world are told they have disease each year. And many of them have limited resources to help them understand what it means.

But that’s been changing since last fall with help from independent agency RPA.

In 2017, the shop was taken on by the Pediatric Brain Tumor Foundation, which wanted to do something about the fear and confusion these children face. The partnership worked to create the Imaginary Friend Society -- a series of 22 short films that translate medical-talk into kid-talk.

After seeing positive impact from the campaign, RPA is pushing forward with new assets, including two more films and an app that takes the characters out of the films and puts them into the hospital environment. Using augmented reality, kids will be able to get a "pep talk" from characters just before a big procedure or when they’re feeling down during treatment.

Many children’s hospitals around the country and influential foundations have already adopted the first set of films and are exposing kids to them early in their treatment. And the videos have been translated into a dozen different languages so far.

"No offense to the work I’ve done for Apple and Honda, but this work fills me with such pride," said RPA’s SVP and chief creative development Jason Sperling. "It’s not often our work can have a positive impact on the world, or be so transformative. I don’t have an experience with childhood cancer, but I know people who have, and how painful the whole thing is. And there’s nothing worse than seeing kids deal with a life or death health issue, when they’re at a point in their life when they should be playing, learning and having fun. It’s not fair."

The partnership worked with 22 animation studios, all of which produced educational cartoons pro bono. They covered complicated aspects of pediatric cancer from blood transfusions to emotionally charged topics like maintaining friendships from the hospital and returning to school after treatment.

Some of the film characters were even inspired by the kids themselves. Drawings have been given life on the screen, imaginary friend dolls have been created for children to hold during MRI scans and coloring books now sit in hospital wards.

"It’s one thing to have this idea, it’s another thing to rally so many award-winning animation companies around it, and have them contribute something that used so many of their resources and talent," said Sperling. "As several animation companies told me, ‘it’s wonderful to be working on such a good cause with all the companies that we usually pitch against’."

Dr. Mark Krieger, chief of neurosurgery at the Children’s Hospital in Los Angeles, said: "We started having the Imaginary Friend Society on the ‘get well’ network at the hospital, so every kid over their bed has a little touch-screen TV that can pull up different types of content. We’ve been amazed at seeing how the kids really gravitate towards this."