GE's dreaming of medical technology as a Fantastic Voyage

Technology AdIn 1966, the film Fantastic Voyage captivated audiences with the characters of Dr. Duval, Captain Owens, Cora Peterson, and Dr. Michaels in their race to save Jan Benes, a scientist who escaped from behind the Iron Curtain with the help of the CIA, from a blood clot in the brain by entering his body in the miniaturized Proteus ship.


Double agents, espionage, and sabotage all accentuate the drama as the ship’s crew is carried into an arterio-venous fistula from the carotid artery into the jugular vein of Benes. The Proteus cruises toward the superior vena cava in the blood system, eventually traversing the innards of the lymphatic system, the alveoli of the lungs, and the channels of the inner ear. As shown in the final scene below, while navigating the labyrinthine passageways, the shrunken crew members scuba into the cortex of Benes’ brain, narrowly escaping after completing their mission, exiting from Benes’ eye through a teardrop, before returning to their original size – that’s some real imagination at work!


Fantastic Voyage was such a science-fiction milestone that medical schools showed clips from the film to illustrate various concepts in human anatomy, physiology, and especially immunology at least through the 1980s.


In a nostalgic flashback, a technology ad for GE Healthcare draws the subtle connection between Hollywood’s dream of the Proteus mission and robotic surgery. As the surgeon wakes from his daydream to the stunned quips of his colleagues, the technology-marketing commercial segues into a technology innovation showcase, branding the soundbite, “medical imaging that allows doctors to navigate the brain with a precision that until today was pure science fiction,” and inserting the tagline “GE – imagination at work” at the end of the commercial.


A jaunty ride with a spacey doctor through the cerebrum of a patient may not seem so funny for the one on the cutting floor, but the commercial is meant to provide a little light-hearted humor to an otherwise critical surgical operation. The reassurance that GE’s medical-imaging technology innovation is bringing such capabilities to society puts the comedic aspects of the technology ad in perspective. We’re not at the level of pinpoint detection accuracy that the Proteus crew had, but it is a valid attempt to provide a visual mosaic for a technical procedure – not much different than showing a Star Wars montage to depict how pimples can be eliminated with controlled light sources, for example.


In their technology marketing campaigns, companies often strive to blur the line between the achievable and the imaginable – preferring to liberally dabble in the technocratic fantasies of the consumer public’s collective dream. Such efforts give shape and form to an activity that would otherwise seem lifeless and dry, lacking any of the captivating flair needed to create a wave of mass adoption for the technology innovation. A technology ad is the perfect medium to offer a soliloquy for the viewer to place technology in context – providing a framework for the future (as best as it can be surmised today).


Where this type of benign attention-grabbing can err is in steering the viewer’s thoughts to misdrawn conclusions or leaps of faith that break informal conventions of truth in advertising. GE and other technology-marketing companies struggle to balance these concerns by positioning their talking points regarding technology innovation ambiguously in the subtle gap in between – which is also imagination at work.