In hindsight, it's easy enough for people to say they would have seen through what Elizabeth Holmes claimed about her company Theranos and its ability to disrupt the medical testing industry. But we can't forget that as the young entrepreneur was on the rise, she had a lot of things in her favor: powerful supporters, an idea that sounded like it was for the greater good, a compelling personal story, and a really good marketing and advertising team to back those up.
Forget, for a minute, everything you may have learned from John Carreyrou’s book Bad Blood, the ABC News podcast (and doc) The Dropout, the HBO doc The Inventor, and a million and a half articles about the rise and fall of Elizabeth Holmes and Theranos. Erase your mind and watch a Theranos ad, directed by Errol Morris.
That's a mini movie made by an Academy Award-winning documentarian — how can you expect people to view it with the same scrutiny with which they view regular pharmaceutical ads? We are all of those people who hate needles. We want the same things. Sign us up!
Knowing what we know about Holmes now, another of Morris' ads, featuring just her speaking to his camera, isn't quite as convincing. We can read all sorts of things into her words and demeanor. But if we didn't know, this could also look like the beginning of a new day in health care — one in which even the suits behind it see patients as humans, not dollars.
As we have learned in all of the above-mentioned looks back at the Theranos debacle, Morris' work was just one part of an elaborate work of fiction Holmes was creating around her company.
A lot of this fiction — okay, we'll call it "marketing," was modeled on Apple. After hiring away several top Apple employees to work with her and even adopting Steve Jobs' signature black turtleneck uniform, Holmes also decided to hire Apple's advertising firm, TBWA\Chiat\Day. Even if you know nothing about advertising, you know that iconic 1984 Super Bowl ad, the "Think Different" campaign, and the Mac vs. PC ads. Theranos had an $11 million deal with the agency, which began its work by helping the company brand its Walgreens wellness centers, where patients were supposedly getting dozens of tests run on just one drop of blood.
"I think the vision of wanting to change the world, that was really attractive to the type of person that worked at Chiat," Mike Peditto, who worked on the campaign, said on The Dropout. "So a lot of people were raising their hands to work on it. ... This is the type of work that I've always wanted to do in my career."
Meanwhile, Holmes also decided to hire away Chiat's executive creative director Patrick O'Neill to be Theranos' chief creative officer. He said he was moved to take the job by the idea of working on something for the common good. According to Bad Blood, he helped his new boss redesign her office space (complete with a quote from Yoda), and prepared her for her game-changing speech at the 2014 TEDMED conference. All of this helped cement her image as an inspirational woman driven to help others.
It was also O'Neill who then connected Holmes with Morris. The filmmaker also seemed enamored of her persona and mission, at least from what we can tell in the behind-the-scenes video he made of their work together.
"I'm a fan," Morris tells Holmes.
"Likewise," she replies.
That exchange makes me feel unwell, but it's also what I can imagine went on between her and so many other powerful people. It speaks to how much everyone really wanted to believe that she was going to bring this device to the public and let them take control of their healthcare. When someone like Morris is convinced, you can bet he'll be able to convince everyone he can reach. (We don’t know for sure what else their conversations were like, or how Morris felt, as he has refused all interviews for Theranos-related documentaries and stories.)
What these ads don't have, you'll notice, is any scientific information whatsoever. All that jargon you hear at the end of regular pharmaceutical ads is so confusing and boring, and also protects companies and allows them to tell us whatever they want to about their product.
The ad Morris made to air during shows like Scandal (they wanted it to reach more female viewers) was pulled after a couple of weeks, Carreyrou wrote in Bad Blood. A doctor had complained when his patients reported visiting Theranos clinics in Walgreens for that painless one-drop-of-blood experience, only to be greeted by a phlebotomist there to take blood the old-fashioned way. No matter how moving those ads were, Holmes apparently didn't have the science to back it up.