Too Much Information?

Knowledge is power. But a little knowledge can be a dangerous thing. I’m trying to reconcile these two ideas to decide whether learning my personal genetic code would do more good than harm.

I read today about Google founder Sergei Brin’s discovery that he carries a genetic mutation that greatly increases his chances of developing Parkinson’s Disease. Brin’s wife, Anne Wojcicki, is the co-founder of a company, 23andMe, which offers personal genetic testing. For just $399 (which makes it well within reach for many people), the company will analyze a saliva sample to provide an in-depth report on how your genetics influence more than 80 diseases, health-related conditions and traits. You can learn what is encoded on your DNA and what it might mean for your current and future health.

Do you want to know whether you are predisposed to have a heart attack or develop breast, colorectal, lung or prostate cancer? Are you destined to be bald? Have gallstones? Or live a long life? Would you live your life differently if you knew you did not have the heart attack gene? Maybe not be as motivated to exercise? Or if you were a smoker with the lung cancer gene, perhaps you would be more motivated to quit smoking?

When we move away from the population-based risk generalities and to our own very specific DNA, I am not sure which way the psychology will lead most people. On the one hand, knowing which diseases are more likely to develop than others lets you focus on the health-related behavior changes that may get you the most bang for the buck. If you have the genes for venous thromboembolism, you can take precautions on long airplane rides and be more aware of symptoms that need prompt medical attention. Those with several of the nine genes related to Type 2 Diabetes can focus on losing weight and monitoring changes in their blood sugar over time.

Along these lines, a recent study showed that patients with high cholesterol are more likely to be motivated to stay on their medication after seeing an actual scan of their own arteries showing blockage from plaque — kind of like the medical version of Scared Straight. The only way to get more personally relevant than seeing evidence in your own body of your risk for heart disease is to see what your genes have to say.

On the other hand, the information people receive (and possibly misinterpret) about their genetic inheritance could lead to an unhealthy fatalism that prevents them from taking any action. If it’s written in their DNA, what can they do to stop it? Or the absence of a disease-related gene, such as for breast cancer (they test for 2 genes, but not the rare but high-risk mutations in the BRCA1 or BRCA2 genes), may lead to an unwarranted sense of invulnerability and the belief that mammograms are no longer necessary.

Of course, biology is not destiny. But it might be hard not to take it as such if you learn that you are at high risk for developing a potentially fatal disease. You may live your whole life in dread, waiting for the other shoe to drop (that is a strange phrase, isn’t it?).

I am reminded of something that happened to me, which illustrates the idea that a little knowledge can be a dangerous thing. Quite a few years ago, I was having back pain and so my doctor had an X-ray done of my back, along with an MRI. In addition to discovering that three of my vertebrae were fused in what was apparently a congenital condition, the MRI showed what the radiologist termed a “syrinx-like cavity” in my spinal cord. So of course I went online, looked up syrinxes and found that they can be a result of a degenerative disease called syringomyelia. It appeared that I would eventually suffer from things like motor impairment, muscle weakness, loss of sensitivity, and chronic pain. I and my family were devastated.

I became an expert on the disease, identified the best course of treatment (surgical implantation of a shunt in the spinal cord) and found clinical trials I could sign up for. Because this is a fairly rare disease, my regular physician and the specialists I consulted with did not have much more to tell me than what I could find myself. The fact that I was asymptomatic was a good thing, but symptoms can come suddenly, triggered by coughing or straining that puts pressure on the cerebrospinal fluid.

I was lucky that one of the world’s experts on syringomyelia was based at UCLA, and after what seemed like a very long time, I was able to get a consultation with him. He took one look at my MRI and said that I did not have syringomyelia. The syrinx was just a vestige of a congenital blip in the development of my spinal cord, and would likely never cause me any problem. And just like that, the random discovery of this anomaly that had turned my life upside down no longer meant anything. False positives are always an issue, as they are with technologies like full-body CT scans that are fishing expeditions for evidence of disease.

As more and more people decide to delve into their genetic endowment, like those at the “spit parties” hosted by 23andMe, ethical issues are bound to pop up. I don’t think we’ll ever have Gattaca-like genetic discrimination, but what happens if insurance companies decide they need to have a look-see at our DNA before they agree to cover us? Genetic testing already plays a prominent role early on in the dating process in some Orthodox Jewish communities, with both parties getting tested and checked against each other to see if they are genetically compatible (i.e., not both carriers of genes for genetic diseases more common among Ashkenazic Jews). Potential couples who may otherwise be perfect for each other may never get together because of that 25% chance of having a baby with a disease like Tay-Sachs or Cystic Fibrosis.

So, what do you think? Do you plan to have yourself and your family tested? Would knowing your genetic code motivate you to take action? Or are there just some things you would be better off not knowing?

Photo Credit: MASH DnArt

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Come Dialogue on New Media Today!

Please join me today (September 16th, 9 am – 7 pm EDT) in a CDC-sponsored Web Dialogue on New Media in Health Marketing. I will be a panelist, along with:

  • Ann Aikin, Health Communications, CDC/NCHM/DeHM
  • Jennie Anderson, MS, and John Snow Inc.
  • Miguel Gomez, Director,, OS
  • Fard Johnmar, M.A., Envision Solutions, LLC
  • R. Craig Lefebvre, PhD, Adjunct Professor, School of Public Health and Health Services, George Washington University

We’ll be asking questions, offering ideas and answers in response to your questions and thoughts, and discussing issues related to blogs, social networks, and other types of social media, as they relate to health marketing (CDC’s term for social marketing). Over 300 of our closest friends have also registered, and will be part of the conversation as well. I hope you will register and join us!

P.S. I will be joining late, as the three hour time difference, plus dropping my sister off at the airport, will delay my jumping in. I’m counting on you all to keep the conversation going until I get back!

Guest Post – Through the Eyes of a Marketer: ServiceNation’s Summit

As promised, here is the guest post from CK following up on the proceedings from the ServiceNation Summit:

Sn_3 Having just come off of ServiceNation’s Summit I’m aflutter with thoughts. It’s not every day that I attend an event with 500+ leaders of non-profit, NGO and social change organizations. And it’s certainly not every day that I get to be at an event with such notables as Barack Obama, John McCain, Hillary Clinton, Jon Bon Jovi, Usher, the CEOs of AARP, Habitat for Humanity and the list goes on. And on.

Dsc01352_2 The event left me humbled and heartened; I guess the best way to put it is that the event left me affected. And I admit to wiping tears from my eyes when Hillary Clinton hit the stage. Whether you voted for her or not, she has done momentous, moving things in her career. Matter of fact, whether you agree with the views or parties of any of the political leaders that were present, I hope we can all agree that these people have accomplished much (as anything else would be downright myopic).

And I give compliments to BOTH presidential candidates for doing well at Thursday night’s Presidential Summit. I didn’t come at this event to judge, but to listen. You see, this event was not a debate because this event was about uniting us all around something on which we all agree: the need to place service, in its many and myriad forms…spanning improvements to education to bettering our nation’s health to eradicating our plummeting levels of poverty…into a place of more prominence in our country, to garner more participation from the public and the need to shift many of our existing perceptions around service.

Dsc01355_2 And if we’re talking prominence and participation—and most definitely when we’re talking perceptions–we are talking my language. Um, marketing anyone?

#1 Exalt prominence: As a nation we have plenty to be proud of on service–many don’t realize what a strong nation of volunteers and efforts to improve social conditions we can boast. But we haven’t placed this as prominently as other departments. Governor Schwarzenegger and wife Maria Shriver have worked hard to get California to appoint a Service Director to its cabinet level–and both McCain and Obama vowed to add this position to their cabinets at the federal levels as well. There are bills dedicated to service that are currently in Congress and ServiceNation unleashed a Declaration of Service that many signed at the event.

#2 Increase participation levels: Whether through activism, advocacy or volunteerism, our nation can increase its level of time dedicated to service. Corporations can make it easier for workers to dedicate a portion Rosie26hergranddaughter_3 of their time to charities. Individuals can learn how to spend a few less hours watching TV and instead teach a child or an adult to read. As marketers we can lend a few spare hours a month to helping a charity with their promotional needs. Point is, we can get creative, and dedicating time to service can be both impactful and tenable amid busy schedules.

#3 Shift pre-existing Perceptions: Obama hit on how we “need to make service cool again” and Schwarzenegger hit on how we need to “leave a space open on our resumes for service,” while Bon Jovi wants to make “service the new black, always in high fashion.” The thing is, we need to shift perceptions around (1) how much service improves our country and its citizens and (2) whom all can dedicate time to service. Remember, while the young have unparalleled levels of energy, older segments have unprecedented wisdom that can only be gained through experience–with retirees having more time they can allot to important causes (I will talk more on this later as, just like AARP underscored, we need to stop viewing the 50+ segment as a deficit when, in fact, they will likely be our biggest asset).

In closing, I would be remiss if I did not extend my gratitude to three entities:

Dsc01366_2 First, to ServiceNation: The event itself–and the overall movement–is a marketing brainchild. BRAVO! There are many organizations dedicated to improving the country’s many issues and pushing for social change so to nestle them all under “service” was clever. What’s more? ServiceNation is only about 18 month’s old, which makes their tireless efforts all the more impressive.

Second, to Echo Ditto: I am beyond impressed at how professional and respectful the EchoDigital Team were to we bloggers (big props to Brian Reich and Joseph Porcelli). They ensured we were well communicated to and had proper accommodations. So much so that, as a professional, I would have no reservations about recommending them to my clients who need help in bolstering communications and communities around their special events.

Third, to Nedra Kline Weinreich: Nedra is both teacher and friend to me. She not only provided me the reference to attend the event, Nedra helps me every day. She’s taken the time to teach me new strategies and methods on social marketing (which is NOT the same thing as social media–read more here). I find that teaching another is one of the most giving things we can do for another person; in this case it’s a huge act of service in bettering our profession.

PS: Yes, those are pictures from speakers at the event. I needed to take shots of the large screens as I wasn’t close enough to the stage to get clearer pictures (and Schwarzenegger attended via video feed). I hope it’s OK that I placed photos of the big names in this post…as I said in my opening, it’s just not every day that I’m in the company of 500 of them.

Nedra here again. A big thanks to CK for her reportage and analysis, as well as the very kind things she said about me. If you would like to read other bloggers’ takes on the summit, here are some links:

Be the Change, Inc.

The New Service

Have Fun * Do Good

Allison Fine

The Toad Stool

Awearness: The Kenneth Cole Blog

Everyday Giving

Columbia Graduate School of Journalism


Future Leaders in Philanthropy (FLiP)

Social Citizens

Conservation Nation

Inside the Marketer’s Studio

My 2 Cents

Climbing the ServiceNation Summit

Sn_2In this political season, it’s easy to get caught up in the partisan politics and back-and-forth snipes. But on September 11th, both candidates will come together on something they can agree on – the importance of community service. Without enthusiastic and willing volunteers, many nonprofits would be unable to function. An organizing committee of 118 member nonprofits, from AARP to Youth Volunteer Corps of America, has put together a monster pep rally to kick off a new national initiative called ServiceNation.

I was invited to attend their New York-based event as a blogger, but unfortunately there’s no subway stop near me here in LA. So I am sending blogger friend and New York local CK (Christina Kerley) to go in my stead to report back to us on the event. If you don’t already know CK, she is one of the most generous, clever and authentic voices in the marketing blog community; though she does not primarily work with nonprofit issues, per se, she certainly has the heart of a social marketer.

Here is CK’s preview of the event, which is also cross-posted on her blog:

I’m both honored and over the moon to be attending ServiceNation’s Summit on September 11th and September 12th. I’ll be blogging a wrap-up of the event…and oh what an event it will be.

For two days over 500 leaders will convene in NYC for a moratorium on politics, to wholly focus on service. The lineup of speakers is mind-blowing (and make me feel oh so small) including Barack Obama, John McCain, Hillary Clinton, Ted Kennedy, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Michael Bloomberg, even Alicia Keys, Jon Bon Jovi, Kenneth Cole, Usher and the CEO of Habitat for Humanity (my FAVE nonprofit organization).

See why I’m over the moon?

I’ll be posting after the event, and I’ll twitter when I can, but I wanted to first give you some background:

6a00d8345194a469e200e554c897df88348ServiceNation Summit
, Sept. 11-12 in New York city, will bring together 500 leaders of all ages and from every sector of American life —from universities and foundations, to business and politics—to celebrate the power and potential of citizen service, and lay out a bold policy blueprint for addressing America’s greatest social challenges through expanded opportunities for volunteer and national service.

The Summit will begin with a presidential candidates’ forum the evening of September 11, where Senators McCain and Obama will speak in depth about their views on the role of citizenship and service in post-9/11 America. New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg will welcome the attendees when the proceedings continue the following day, and the summit will conclude with a keynote address by California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, who earlier this year became the first governor to create a cabinet post dedicated to service and volunteering.”

ServiceNation is a campaign for a new America. An America where citizens unite and take responsibility for the nation’s future. An America that restores the great tradition of citizen service, and honors the profound sacrifices made by so many Americans who have passed before, from the small band of Founders to the millions who have fought for equality and justice at home, and defended our freedom abroad. ServiceNation is about an America that is ruggedly idealistic, compassionate, and above all committed to the idea of shared sacrifice in pursuit of America’s boldest promise: liberty and justice for all.

I will be joined by my fellow colleagues’/marketing bloggers: David Berkowitz, David Reich and Alan Wolk…so watch for posts and tweets from us all. Lastly, I need to give a HUGE shout-out and HEAPS of gratitude to Nedra Kline Weinreich for recommending me to attend this event. Unfortunately, since she’s on the West Coast she won’t be able to attend (and will have to vicariously experience the event through me); but she has truly made my year. I’ll be cross-posting on this blog and her blog about the event.

Here are some links for more info.:
To see the schedule of events on Thursday and Friday go here
To follow ServiceNation on Twitter go here
Follow David Berkowitz, Alan Wolk or CK (me) on Twitter
To learn more about ServiceNation go here

Kudos to the ServiceNation organizers for reaching out to bloggers to extend the reach of their event. In addition to CK’s coverage here after the event, I will also link out to other bloggers who are attending, including Allison Fine, Anthony Showalter and Lara Galinsky of Echoing Green, and others I know who are awaiting their security clearance.

I’m looking forward to CK’s report about the Summit, which will appear here soon afterward. In the meantime, check out some of CK’s posts related to social marketing issues and social media. Thanks, CK, for being our intrepid reporter!

Hurricane Force Social Media

While at this point it is apparent that Hurricane Gustav is not going to turn into another Katrina, at the end of last week it was not so clear. What was clear is that social media is playing a bigger role in disaster preparedness and response than ever before.

As we went into the holiday weekend, I watched in awe from the sidelines as a tribe of people on Twitter mobilized to put social media tools into place to deal with the anticipated disaster, building on what had been created two years earlier on an ad hoc basis in the social aftermath of Katrina. With a volunteer effort led by Andy Carvin of NPR, the work centered around a Ning social network called the Gustav Information Center and a related wiki.

In this and other independent initiatives, many people created and compiled tools like Twitter feeds that broadcast government alerts, news, and blog links about Gustav, as well as a widget that combined all Twitter mentions of Gustav; an interactive map that shows evacuation routes, shelter locations and storm movement; a feed of Craigslist volunteering and housing opportunities; a mobile resource guide and more. ReadWriteWeb compiled a comprehensive list of the online resources that were created mostly in advance of the hurricane’s landfall.

While clearly the government was much better prepared to ensure there was no repeat of the chaos that ensued after the dropping of balls at multiple levels two years ago, and nonprofits like the Red Cross stood at the ready to assist people displaced by the storm, the prize for coordination has to go to the citizen volunteers who spent their Labor Day weekend building a massive online infrastructure. These are people who often had no connection to New Orleans other than a strong desire to do something to help their fellow humans. And by working together in a coordinated way, they were able to avoid duplicating efforts and use their volunteer time most efficiently.

Considering the massive resources that FEMA has at its disposal, the web page it created with information about the Federal response to Gustav is fairly paltry. The Red Cross utilized a blog as an online newsroom to good effect, with multimedia resources for the press and quick distribution of downloadable public service announcements. And its Safe and Well list can also be accessed via Twitter.

But it is the combined contributions of hundreds of social media enthusiasts that created a gale force of its own and demonstrated the raw power of the social web.

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China’s PR Olympics

I hope that when the International Olympic Committee meets in its cushy offices on the shores of Lake Geneva to do its postmortem of this year’s games, they have the honesty to admit that the choice of Beijing as Olympic host was a huge mistake (they won’t, of course). While the Chinese people certainly have the Olympic spirit running through their veins (and the Chinese athletes have probably had an IV drip in place since they were seven), the Chinese government did exactly what many human rights activists feared. I’ve already written about all the reasons why China should not have been awarded the games, so on the heels of the Olympic closing ceremony, let’s look at the results.

After enduring what seemed like plagues of Biblical proportions in the months running up to the Olympics (the earthquake, locusts, tons of algae covering the Olympic sailing venue, choking pollution and more), China overcame them all to put on a blockbuster show for the world. The opening ceremony dazzled fans and critics alike, but the “One World” theme would have been profoundly more meaningful if China would actually let its citizens join the rest of the world rather than surrounding them with firewalls.

Every aspect of the Olympic production was carefully orchestrated to show that China deserves to stand alongside the other nations of the world, and to showcase what China has to offer. Unfortunately, this $40 billion spectacle was created on the backs of the Chinese citizens, who the government spared no opportunity to repress in the interest of global PR. Whether it was the thousands of dissidents who were preemptively arrested prior to the influx of outside reporters, the hundreds of thousands of Beijing residents who were displaced to make way for Olympic venues without compensation, or the “undesirables” — the homeless, beggars, and street vendors — who were rounded up and sent to detention centers, I cannot look at the beautiful stadiums without thinking about the price extracted by the government to erect them.

The Chinese Olympic Committee provided assurances that things would change if they were awarded the games. They would open more access to the internet, offer opportunities for protest, allow outside reporters to have freedom in what they reported. This resulted in temporary access to some Western media sources online, which has now been clamped closed. The protest zones were empty, not because everybody was suddenly happy, but because the government arrested everyone who applied for a permit to demonstrate, including two elderly Chinese women, who were sentenced to a year in a labor camp, and at least eight American bloggers and activists sentenced to 10 days in detention. If anything, the iron fist of the government tightened during the Olympics rather than loosened.

Along the way, though, the Chinese government’s carefully constructed PR facade started showing some chinks in its armor (pun definitely NOT intended!). It was revealed that the opening ceremony’s technically amazing fireworks display included some CGI effects. A picture perfect girl was actually lip-synching to the beautiful voice of another girl, who had been deemed too unattractive to represent China. The children representing the 56 ethnic groups in China were all from the Han majority. Many sold-out events were played in front of half-filled stands to prevent the gathering of large uncontrollable crowds. And the question remains whether the Chinese government issued passports to underage gymnasts so they could compete on behalf of the country.

All this is not to say that the Olympics themselves were defective. To the contrary, the athletes that gathered from all over the world to compete exemplified the best of Olympic values, and bear no complicity in the shameful activities of the Chinese government’s preparations for the games.

Now it’s back to business as usual for China — though with a shiny new veneer of acceptability by many of the world’s citizens. We can hope that the brief encounter that the Chinese people had with the free world will be a catalyst for change from within. But none of the world’s leaders — including President Bush, who attended the opening ceremony in Beijing — have said much to counter the PR cover-up. The athletes who joined Team Darfur, or others who might have felt free to make a political statement in any other country, avoided any controversial statements, worried that, like Joey Cheek, their visas would be revoked and they would not be allowed to compete.

China definitely got what it wanted out of the deal. And the rest of us got a spin job.

Photo Credit:

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Engagement and Deliverance at the CDC, Part 2

Continuing the sum-up of my experience at the CDC’s 2nd National Conference on Health Communication, Marketing and Media (Part 1 here), here are the key points from the sessions I attended on the second day…


  • Jack Wakshlag, Chief Research Officer, Turner Broadcasting Systems – Countering the prevailing wisdom that today’s media consumers are watching less and less television, he provided some statistics that surprised me. TV viewing has been rising from 2002-2007, and the average person spends 47% of their media hours with a television on. Network viewing (ABC, CBS, NBC, Fox) is at an all-time low, but cable channels are at a high. Even people with broadband internet are watching more TV now than five years ago, not replacing it with online video (which are more like “snacks,” averaging 2 min 12 sec, rather than longer-format programming). Even teens are watching more TV, though less than adults.

    After the session, I asked Mr. Wakshlag what I thought was the elephant in the room, which he hadn’t addressed. Increased TV viewing is great for people working in entertainment education, working to get their issues depicted on TV programming. But clearly the key reason why he is promoting the continued domination of television is to make the case for advertising when many advertisers are defecting to other media – but are people still paying attention to the commercials? With the advent of Tivo and DVRs, many have the ability to bypass the ads. He conceded that only about 50% of viewers watch the commercials, though I suppose the numbers are still big enough to make it worth it.

  • J. Walker Smith, President, Yankelovich, Inc. – Our relationships with brands are changing in a couple of different key ways. First, the culture of “dis-ownership” means that we no longer have to own something to have it (e.g., leasing, swapping, fractional ownership, piracy, etc.). Second, the culture of “responsibility” has come about from an increased emphasis on values that companies should be green, socially responsible, community-focused and purpose-driven. People see their purchases as a way of sending a message and influencing companies’ business practices. This can only happen with increased information availability, but in a pinpointed way. Enabling “narrow engagement,” with just the key pieces of information that people need to make decisions without overwhelming them, is going to be the key to making this happen.

Building Our Understanding of Health Messages Targeting Women
(I was moderating this session and didn’t take as many notes as I should have!)

  • Samantha Nazione, Michigan State University – In a study looking at breast cancer-focused websites, she found that there is not much targeting done in terms of ethnicity or language. In general, the website reading levels were too high. Websites tailored for minorities were more likely to use first-person stories about breast cancer.
  • Patrice Chamberlain, San Francisco State University – Mothers are a huge target of advertising, with 80.5 million mothers controlling 80% of household spending ($1.6 trillion purchasing power). After the internet, magazines are the second most important source of information for moms for purchasing decisions. This study looked at food and beverage ads in the top parenting publications in the US, and analyzed them in terms of the appeals they used. The most common appeals were about the healthfulness and taste of the products. Many also promised things like more family time, improved relationships with the kids, ways for moms to “do it all.” She contrasted the images with some of the nutrition-related social marketing ads that are out there, which often focus more on deficiencies or fear and guilt; we need to learn better from those with the most experience how to appeal to moms.
  • Christy Ledford, George Mason University – In looking at the websites that pharmaceutical companies have used to promote their contraceptive products, they had several common factors. Rather than promoting effectiveness as the key benefit, most touted things like convenience, other physiological benefits (e.g., reduced acne, no periods), and relative risk compared to other brands. The risks were always in tiny text at the bottom of the page, and only one site out of the ten presented the “black box” warning that was required in other media. The sites did not make clear that they were advertising, often appearing to be educational, with the pharmaceutical company or division’s name in an obscure location. And the URLs usually consisted of a message, rather than the product’s name (e.g., While there is currently no regulations regarding online direct-to-consumer advertising, most of these sites violate current DTC regulations for other media.

Health Marketing Strategies: Segmentation, Tailoring and Targeting
(Unfortunately, I missed the first speaker in this panel.)

  • Leslie Snyder, University of Connecticut – A meta-analysis of interventions that tailored their communications to audience members found (not surprisingly) that tailored interventions were more effective in bringing about health behavior change than non-tailored interventions. She gave an example of tailored calendars to promote childhood immunizations, which included a picture of the child and his/her name, along with key dates like his/her birthday, required shots based on the birthdate, and the phone number of the nearest clinic to their house. Tailored interventions have a similar effect size to media campaigns, and because the effect declines over time should have a “booster activity” done at about three months post-intervention. Did you know that the University of Connecticut has a Center for Health Communication and Marketing? I didn’t.
  • Adam Barry, Texas A&M University – This was a very exploratory study (only 13 participants) regarding how college students interpret the message to “drink responsibly,” since there is no universally accepted definition of responsible drinking. With responses like no drinking and driving, knowing your limits, pacing your drinking, and planning ahead, there is a lot of room for negative consequences. For example, the students said you can’t know your personal limits until you go past them, and as long as you don’t black out or throw up, you are within the limits. In monitoring your drinking, by the time you notice the effects, your judgment is already gone. If you pace your drinking (e.g., one drink/hour) you can still get drunk because your body does not metabolize one drink an hour. Even the designated driver concept often gets ignored because it’s like a “punishment” for the one who is not allowed to drink. We have to be careful in the messages we put out there, because some can be dangerous if misinterpreted or misapplied.

Peer-to-Peer Communications

  • Scott Shamp, University of Georgia (and others) – For National HIV Testing Day, UGA’s New Media Institute, along with partners Verizon, CDC, Danya International and Nokia, recruited 23 students from universities in the Southeast to come together to create what they called “Personal Public Service Announcements” (PPSAs). These were short videos created on cell phones all in the course of one day. Guided by experts, the students learned about HIV/AIDS, about filmmaking and how to use the technology. After coming up with their plans and having them approved by a CDC panel for accuracy, they were divided into remote teams, who shot the footage and then immediately sent it back to the producers who edited it into short videos. They shot 22 videos, and eight of them were used in the final set. They were distributed online in places like YouTube, MySpace, and blogs (e.g., Osocio), as well as on cell phone networks. They all included the KNOWIT SMS code, to which viewers could text their zip code to receive the testing location nearest them.
  • Sarah Diamond, The Institute for Community Research – The Xperience project trained vocal artists ages 14-25 about drug and alcohol prevention, while also helping them create and record a song, rap or spoken piece about the issue. These pieces were then compiled into a CD and performed at a concert. In research to determine the effect of these peer-created messages on the listeners, she found that when the lyrics were “loss-framed” (e.g., negative effects of drugs), males and females related better to the same-sex artists, and the males responded more in general. The “gain-framed” lyrics (e.g., “you can do it,” “things will be better”) appealed to both genders.

Unfortunately, I was not able to stay for the third day of the conference, but perhaps others have posted their notes for other sessions on the Ning group created for the conference. As with many conferences, though, the personal connections made with old and new friends were even more of a highlight than the sessions themselves.

In other CDC-related news, make sure you sign up for the upcoming Web Dialogue on Web 2.0 and Health Marketing co-sponsored by CDC’s National Center for Health Marketing and WestEd. It will be a one-day asynchronous discussion on September 16th about how to use social media technologies in social marketing and public health. I will be a panelist, along with Fard Johnmar and Craig Lefebvre (so far). I can see by those who have already registered to participate that many of my very smart online friends will be there, so it should be a rollicking good time where we’ll all learn from each other. Make sure you sign up too!

And another piece of exciting news comes from Jay Bernhardt, the director of the NCHM:

The CDC National Center for Health Marketing is developing a national network of leaders dedicated to applying the power of marketing, communication, and partnerships to improve the health of individuals, families, and communities in the US and throughout the world. This network of individual leaders and organizations, called the Health Marketing Leadership Roundtable will strive to advance the field of health marketing science and practice, educate and inform partners and stakeholders on the value of health marketing for improving people’s health, and receive key updates on health marketing activities from CDC and others throughout the field of public health.

Whatever gets us closer to formalizing ways to advance the social marketing field and brings practitioners together is a good thing. I look forward to seeing where this goes!

Engagement and Deliverance at the CDC, Part 1

I can’t attend humongous conferences like the American Public Health Association monstrosity; although there are an incredible number of sessions, only a small percentage actually apply directly to my own interests. Last week at the CDC’s 2nd National Conference on Health Communication, Marketing and Media, I had the opposite problem. So many sessions were scheduled, and nearly every one was spot-on as to the topics I want to learn about, that it was hard to choose which ones to attend. (Disclosure: I was on the conference planning committee, but can’t really claim credit for how the actual end product turned out. And I unfortunately did not try hard enough to change the theme — “Engage and Deliver” — which Adam Ant sang over and over in my head throughout the conference.)

I had to miss the last day of the conference, but still filled an entire notepad with my notes from each session. Aside from the plenary sessions, the panels were comprised primarily of research-based presentations. Despite some inevitably dry deliveries, I’m glad our field has evolved to the point where we have so much research to share. Here are some of the key points I thought were worth highlighting:


  • James Surowiecki, author of The Wisdom of Crowds, talked about how, under the right conditions, a group’s decisions can be smarter than those of the smartest person in the group. He used examples like Google’s pagerank algorithm, racetrack betting and Best Buy’s yearly gift card sales. His point is that if you can devise a way to aggregate individual predictions simultaneously, and to do this within a diverse group of people with different perspectives and ways of approaching problems, the random errors will cancel each other out and you will end up with the closest approximation to the correct answer.

    Key lessons: 1) When assembling a team to solve a problem, bring in people with many different viewpoints and skills. 2) Encourage disagreement. 3) Limit the amount of back-and-forth dithering, which leads to worse decisionmaking.

New Frontiers in Message Design Theory

  • Karen King, University of Georgia – If you have multiple messages to convey within a campaign, you can bundle up to four together without losing recall. It does not make a difference whether you specify the category that unifies the messages. I found this interesting as I have always thought to be most effective you should limit the number of messages you try to cram into a single communication piece. They were testing this with brochures, but I think other media would have a different maximum number.
  • Michael Rovito, Temple University – For the issue of testicular cancer, he used perceptual mapping to identify four different types of “control identities” related to locus of control (whether people believed control was external or internal) and constructs of whether control is realistic or unrealistic. The four types were: 1) The Fates – unrealistic external; 2) The Herd – realistic external; 3) The Optimals – realistic internal; and 4) The Manipulators – unrealistic internal. Clearly, different types of people need different kinds of messages tailored to their beliefs.
  • Bill Smith, Academy for Educational Development – Bill described a research/decision making technique called “deliberative polling,” which was created by James Fishkin and offers another way to think about involving citizens in policy discussions when there is no clear-cut right answer. A randomly selected sample of 800-1500 people, who are first polled by phone, are brought together over two days. During this time they read background documents on the issue, have experts explaining the different options, ask questions of the experts, and break into small groups to discuss and debate what they’ve learned. This technique can be a good way of involving the public in evaluating competing alternatives and prioritizing public policy issues.

Applying Emerging Theories to Engage the Public

  • Sergey Sotnikov, CDC – By mapping out the relationships between either organizations or people within an organization, you can use network analysis to visualize the key points within the network. You can look at who is most connected overall, who are the go-betweens on specific topics, and who is more isolated. This can help you figure out the best way to spread information within a network.
  • Jennifer Heilbronner, Metropolitan Group – Jennifer spoke about building public will, and how this is a different process from social marketing. She defined it as “a communication approach that builds public support for long-term social change by integrating grassroots outreach methods with traditional mass media tools and connecting an issue to the existing, closely held values of individuals and groups.” While I think she was contrasting this process to the too common mass media-focused, short-term campaign blast many people think is social marketing, her description of public will building is much closer to the more comprehensive marketing mix-driven social marketing process to which many of us in the field adhere. You can download her group’s Public Will Framework to learn more about their process.
  • Constanze Rossmann, Ludwig-Maximilians-Universitat-Munchen – While I thought it was overkill to start off with a definition of “health flyer” and I loved her pronunciation of the word “anxiety” as “ANKshity” (Yes! It does look like it should be pronounced that way.), this presentation looked at two very important different elements of how we present information. First, do exemplars — a case study of one person — affect risk perceptions, attitudes and behaviors more than abstract statistics and generalizations about the population? In her testing of a brochure about obesity, the answer was yes — but only among people who are already involved with the issue (e.g., worried about their weight, dieting, etc.). Second, what is the effect of fear appeals in graphic images? She tested three different images related to obesity, each of which was either low, moderate or high fear inducing. Interestingly, she found that when it came to building knowledge, the low and high images were more effective. To affect risk perception, attitudes and behaviors, the moderately fear inducing image was more effective. I wonder why that difference – do different types of people react to the images in different ways?

That was Day 1 – I’ll sum up the second day in a subsequent post.

In the meantime, you can learn more by checking out the Ning group for the conference that was started by Dana Sheets as a place to share notes. If you’re on Facebook, look at the Health Communication, Marketing and Media group that is a central place to exchange ideas related to the conference. Read Craig Lefebvre’s summary of a discussion that took place at the conference about the development of a professional network. And if you went to the conference and want to put in your two cents about what you thought, someone at the CDC Chatter message board wants to know if it was “as extravagant and pointless as we all expected it to be.” Um, no, Senator Coburn. An embarrassment of riches, perhaps, but extravagant and pointless, not in any way.

UPDATE: Read Part 2 here

Remembering Tony Schwartz

I just learned from Dick Morris that political and social media pioneer Tony Schwartz died this weekend. While he is perhaps best known for a TV commercial that ran only once but changed the course of an election (the Daisy ad) and his media work for other political candidates, he is also owed a debt of gratitude for his influence on social marketing as well.

Among the more than 20,000 spots Tony recorded in his lifetime were the first anti-smoking commercials. A 1961 ad featuring children dressing up in their parents’ clothing in front of a mirror (“Children learn by imitating their parents. Do you smoke cigarettes?”) was credited by the American Cancer Society with driving the tobacco industry’s ads off television and radio. He was an active anti-tobacco advocate and addressed many social issues as well.

I was lucky to have met Tony several times as a student at the Harvard School of Public Health. He co-taught a course on developing media communications that I took, and for which I later became the teaching assistant. Because he was agoraphobic, Tony did not often leave his home in New York City. He taught the class via teleconference, and we actually flew up to New York to meet with him a couple of times in his 56th Street apartment/studio (yes, it’s nice to go to a school with resources like that!).

In his cramped studio surrounded by massive shelves of tapes and videos, we had the opportunity to learn from the master. At the end of the quarter we had our own PSA radio spots recorded by a professional announcer there.

From Tony, I learned the importance of tapping into emotions, using sound and images to strike a “responsive chord” with what people already knew and believed. And long before the Truth campaign came along, he was wielding the delicate scalpel (and sometimes blunt club) of shame to get people to do the right thing about everything from picking up after their dog to city budgetary issues.

His guerrilla media approach often utilized the tactic of “narrowcasting” to the extreme; he sometimes even had a target audience of one – for example, the chairman of Philip Morris or McDonalds, or the city councilman responsible for a particular crime-ridden neighborhood. In some cases, just the threat of Tony’s well-known brand of shaming via media was enough to persuade an abrupt turnaround without the ad ever running.

Though I haven’t thought about Tony Schwartz for quite a while, as I write this I am realizing how much I apply the things I learned from him in my everyday work. Thank you, Tony.


Please Pardon Our Dust

For some reason, my blog has decided to stage a rebellion. It got used to slacking off and resented my putting up a new post. Until I figure out how to fix it, you can find all of the sidebar items usually found on the right side, sitting in a big pile on the bottom of the page, too lazy to lift themselves up to the top. A thousand pardons…

Photo Credit: Robert Brook