The Power of Positive Messages

Sep 26

What motivates you to exercise or eat healthy?  Are you the kind of person who needs a drill sergeant barking orders and insults to motivate you to move?  Does encouragement and reassurance motivate you to say no to that piece of chocolate cake?   While everyone is admittedly different and has their own style when trying to lose weight, a recent study suggests that the real power lies in positive messaging.

An article reporting on a study published in the International Journal of Obesity stated that the most effective messages  were those that  suggested specific steps that would improve health, conveyed a sense of empowerment and left references to obesity unspoken.   In fact, messages that tried to motivate using  images of very obese individuals, and messaging suggesting overweight individuals will will become victims of self-inflicted disease, poor role models for their families and a drag on the economy were assessed as least effective.

These findings are understandable – who wants to be stigmatized negatively, especially because of their weight.  Obese or overweight individuals already endure enough stigma and ridicule from society.  To leverage that stigma and experience to try to motivate individuals doesn’t seem like it could be effective.   Still, what surprised me about this study was that simple straight forward messages like ‘eat right’, ‘be active’,  ‘be healthy’ seemed to be rated as most effective.   While there is no doubt in my mind that people would respond more positively to positive messages than negative ones… I wonder which do a better job of capturing attention.   The true impact of any campaign – will depend on whether anyone is listening.  First you have to capture attention, then you need to communicate the compelling, impactful message.  To that end I wonder if perhaps what  hasn’t been figured out yet is how to capture attention in a compelling way, without stigmatizing.    Who will  come up with a way to make those wonderfully effective positive messages actually be provocative and attention getting?  There in lies the key.

The Carrot or the Stick?

Sep 19

Ever wonder how powerful a ‘headline’ can be? I recently read an article entitled “Millions don’t have their blood pressure under control”. And all I kept thinking was ‘but how many millions DO have their blood pressure under control?’ It made me wonder what can we learn from those who DO do it right?

I know media is often looking for a hook and typically that hook takes the form of a fear-tactic. Don’t get me wrong, even in the public health sector, fear-appeal messages, when paired with important content on how to avoid the danger, can be very powerful and persuasive. But, I can’t help wonder whether in this day and age, when fear appeals are everywhere, whether we’ve grown immune to such headlines. I would find myself much more intrigued to hear what IS working for the millions who have been able to control their blood pressure. What really did work for the millions who have lost the extra weight that had put them at risk for diabetes or heart disease? What types of investment, refinancing strategies did work for the millions who didn’t lose their homes in the recent economic downturn. Those types of articles would give me hope! Isn’t that the information we are all looking for… how to improve our health, finances, quality of life?

Looking at the content of the blood pressure article, there are solid recommendations for how controlling blood pressure can be successful, but they are buried under even more alarming statistics of how many people don’t even realize they have high blood pressure, how many don’t take medicine, and how many take medicine but don’t have it under control. Is the real question ‘how bad has this health crisis become’ or should it be ‘how can it be fixed’? If it’s the latter, then would an approach that spotlights successes and helps people learn from each other work harder in helping us make positive life changes?

From Zombies to Law Enforcement – Preparedness in Social Marketing

Sep 18

Preparedness is a major focus of Social Marketing and Risk and Emergency Communications. One question we answer every day is how to best prepare the public for events that will – or might – occur. Vaccinations, taxes, and homeland security might not have a lot in common on the surface, but we’ve focused on advancing society by emphasizing the importance of preparation in these areas – from ensuring youth and adults have received recommended vaccinations so they are not infected with influenza, shingles, or HPV; empowering adults with the information they need to file taxes electronically; and conducting drills to test responses to terrorism in a drill setting.

Public-facing organizations – from health departments to law enforcement – should be using social media and the web to communicate and help people prepare before information is crucial; that is, before a pandemic occurs, prior to tax day, and earlier than a national security crisis.

Earlier this summer, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention gained national attention for their Zombie Apocalypse initiative to teach the importance of emergency preparedness with a graphic novel, buttons and badges, and more.

After spending four years in Milwaukee for college, I try my best to keep abreast of news and highlights from the city and state. Recently, the launch of the Milwaukee Police Department’s (MPD) news website, received significant buzz and recognition. Designed pro bono by local agency Cramer-Krasselt, industry publication Advertising Age highlighted the “excellent and design-minded website” while the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel called it “possibly the flashiest-looking government website on the Internet.”

Though the site (dubbed The Source) serves as a direct communication channel to local residents and media alike rather than an obvious crime preparation tool, it does inform audiences about what the MPD is accomplishing in the community. And if one more resident contributes to the drop in crime statistics or provides tips for the most wanted listed, it has successfully made Milwaukee a safer place.

Do you think the MPD’s site can lead to lower crime and the preparedness of those in the community for crime or response? Does flashiness matter when it comes to preparing the public for major events – whether they be related to health, crime, or zombies?

Questioning the Value of a College Education

Sep 13

In this week’s Newsweek cover story, “The College Bubble,” the author introduces an interesting question, “is college a lousy investment?”

Immediately this headline caught my attention. In today’s society, how can anyone question the value of education? Just last week at the Democratic National Convention, President Obama asserted that, “Education was the gateway to opportunity for me.” Is this even debatable?

I grew up on the Taos Pueblo Indian reservation in northern New Mexico. I received my primary education at a reservation school. My secondary education was spent at the only public high school in Taos, New Mexico. I was fortunate enough to attend Colorado College, a small liberal arts school in Colorado Springs, and this experience gave me opportunities well beyond my expectations.

In the cover story, the author’s focal point is that, “For an increasing number of kids, the extra time and money spent pursuing a college diploma will leave them worse off than they were before they set foot on campus.”

Source: Flickr - Tax Credits

The author frames her argument by citing the amount of debt students undertake to pay for higher education. Upon graduation, recent graduate’s incomes are not comparable to the amount of debt that they incurred. As a result, some experts suggest that college is a worthy investment for the average student but the price of college ravages the return.

Furthermore, the author cites work from a recent study, “that at least a third of students gain no measurable skills during their four years in college. For the remainder who do, the gains are usually minimal.”

So people don’t learn anything in college? And for those that do, the gains are minimal? Really?! From my personal perspective, I can’t quantify the amount of knowledge I gained in my four years at Colorado College, but I do know that my writing, critical thinking, and public speaking drastically improved. Not to mention the knowledge I gained from my technical classes. While you can’t measure the sense of accomplishment and confidence gained throughout college, the value is significant.

In addition, I feel that her argument is even more flawed because it is based solely on the immediate prospects for graduating students. She has neglected to reflect on the benefits of higher education later on in life. What is the average potential earnings growth for a student with a college education compared to a high school only educated peer in 5 years, 10 years, and 15 years in the future? Where is the data on life time earning potential for college graduates?

With that said, I feel the author raises a relevant point in the fact that students and their families are not prepared for the commitments that higher education requires. This is a behavior that must change. As social marketers, we are in the business of influencing change. We need to develop communications programs that bring awareness to the fact that higher education costs are rising, and there doesn’t seem to be any relief in sight. Consequently, parents and their children need to be made aware of financing options that can help them prepare for this future investment. While earning the degree is essential, I also believe that we need to emphasize the importance of learning. Students need to take full advantage of this valuable opportunity and realize that they attend institutions of higher education to better themselves by investing the time to study. Finally, and perhaps hardest of all, young students need to learn patience. Success and financial freedom are not guaranteed immediately following graduation. Yet, getting a degree provides access to numerous possibilities later in life.

“Is college education a lousy investment?” You tell me. I’ve already experienced the benefits of continuing my education and I know/believe I am just scratching the surface.

Ogilvy Washington Welcomes OgilvyConnect 2012 Participants

Sep 11

On Thursday, September 13, Ogilvy Washington will launch its second year of OgilvyConnect, a four session communications training program for nonprofits that serve the National Capital Region.  We are delighted to announce and welcome the following organizations as participants:

ACT for Alexandria, a community foundation that seeks to raise the level and effectiveness of community engagement and giving.
AppleTree Institute for Education Innovation, an organization that aspires to close the achievement gap before children enter kindergarten.
Boys & Girls Clubs of Greater Washington, a group that helps boys and girls build confidence, develop character, and acquire skills to become productive, civic minded, responsible adults.
Children’s Law Center, a nonprofit that works to give every child in the District of Columbia a solid foundation of family, health, and education.
Doorways for Women and Families, an organization that creates pathways out of domestic violence and homelessness, leading to safe and stable lives.
Family Matters of Greater Washington, a nonprofit devoted to improving individual, family, and community life through professional services and programs for those less fortunate.
Impact Silver Spring, a group committed to building and sustaining community-based networks that support people who are creating social, economic, and civic momentum.
Lydia’s House, an organization that offers transitional housing for abused women and their children.
Metro Teen AIDS, a community health organization dedicated to partnering with young people to end HIV/AIDS.

Through OgilvyConnect, we at Ogilvy Washington aim to help close the gap in social disparities that weigh heavily on our city by providing the participating nonprofits with the communications knowledge, tools, and resources needed to support and advance their missions. Turning Desires into Actions

Sep 10

Many people desire to be on time, to lose weight, to study hard, to spend more time with family, or to read more books. Rationally, desire should lead to action. But it’s not that simple.

A group of Yale economists has addressed this seemingly simple yet immensely complex phenomenon through online “commitment contracts” on The commitment contract concept is based on two principles of behavioral economics: (1) people don’t always do what they claim they want to do, and (2): incentives get people to do things.

On, individuals can register their personal goals and set up “punishments” for themselves if they don’t reach those goals.  People can contractually set aside money that they will lose if their goals are not met. Even stronger of an incentive, users can have the money set aside as punishment go to an “anti-charity,” or a cause that they despise—like a political party that they disagree with—if they don’t meet their goals. For people who would rather be punished by humiliation, they can choose to have their failures sent over email to everyone in their contact lists. is doing well in helping people achieve their goals. For people who use the website to set and achieve weight loss goals, for example, there is a reported 85%-90% achievement rate. is a great example of a program where social marketing and behavioral science theory merge and are put into successful practice:

Loss Aversion. recognizes that the threat of losing money is much more powerful in motivating people to take action than the incentive of gaining money.

Stages of Change. takes a consumer through the first four stages of change with simple clicks of a mouse: pre-contemplation, contemplation, preparation, and action. The fifth stage of change—maintenance—is up to the consumer.

Theory of Reasoned Action. recognizes that attitudes and intentions can lead to behavior change.  Therefore, the website promotes self-efficacy, and consumers obtain a solid understanding of what will or will not happen if their goals are achieved.

Social Learning Theory. has a portion of their home page devoted to “Who’s StickK-ing?” People on the fence about signing up can learn from seeing others define and achieve their goals, making them more likely to engage in similar actions.

So, do we as human beings need a third party to help us define and meet our goals? I don’t think so, but I do think it can help. What are your thoughts?

A New Spin on Healthy School Lunches

Sep 06

I can still vividly remember standing in line at my high school cafeteria waiting for whatever “meal” I’d be given. In the late ‘90s healthy school lunches weren’t even a consideration, at least not at my school, with grease-laden stromboli, breakfast for lunch (i.e. cinnamon rolls, french toast sticks and sausage), and fries frequenting the menu. Sadly, in many school districts across the country things haven’t seemed to improve much. When I looked at my 12-year-old nephew’s school lunch menu not long ago I was shocked to see corn dogs!

Luckily for future generations, including my two-year-old son, new Federal nutrition guidelines go into effect this fall. The Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 requires schools to serve students fruits and vegetables every day, only fat-free or low-fat milk, serve more whole grains, and limit their use of salt, saturated fat, and trans fat. Calories must also be limited according to the age of the children—kids in kindergarten through 5th grade are limited to 650 calories for lunch and for high schoolers the number increases to 850 calories for lunch. Essentially, the Act allows the U.S. Department of Agriculture to make real reforms to school lunch and breakfast programs for the first time in over 30 years.

Young woman selects fruit in school cafeteria

U.S. News and World Report details some of the interesting and innovative menus schools are testing out to offer kids healthy school meals. Examples include pizza made with whole-grain crust and sweet potato puree sauce, beef barley stew, and spaghetti squash in place of pasta. More examples can be found at the School Nutrition Association’s website: Now, these recipes are incredibly appealing to me, I may even try to model them in my own meal preparations, but I’m honestly not sure how open-minded kids are going to be about trying squash in place in of their pasta.

However, I certainly support this effort and see great value in introducing healthy eating habits to children early, both at home and at school. So hopefully school districts can strike the right balance of losing the corn dogs, while still ensuring kids enjoy their food and understand the health benefits it has. Now if only I could get my two-year to eat something other than macaroni and cheese…

Promotores and Community Health Workers: from the Frontlines to the Forefront

Aug 30

In the past couple of years, Promotores and Community Health Workers have been receiving significant attention from public health Federal agencies, especially those interested in reaching and making an impact among vulnerable, low income, and underserved members of the Latino/Hispanic population. More specifically, Federal agencies are turning to these individuals for their unique ability to serve as “bridges” between community members and health care services.  “Promotores de Salud”, or loosely translated “Promoters of Health,” are similar to community health workers in that they conduct outreach for advocacy organizations, health clinics, and medical organizations. However, many Promotores are not permanently employed; they are individuals and leaders within their community and they volunteer their time to help out due to their love and concern for their communities. Unlike other outreach vehicles, Promotores do not have to be deployed to “hard to reach” areas because they already live, work, and are actively engaged in those areas.

Galpón Sur

Last year, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) announced the creation of an HHS Promotores de Salud/Community Health Workers Initiative that aims to 1) recognize the important contributions of Promotores, and 2) promote the increased engagement of

Promotores to support health education and prevention efforts and access to health insurance programs. The Initiative is guided by a Federal Work Group representing HHS agencies and coordinated by the HHS Office of Minority Health. A Project Steering Committee of 15 Promotores from various parts of the U.S. regularly provides information to the Federal Work Group.  While the Initiative has not yet showed specific outcomes, I personally applaud this first step.

I have had the privilege of working closely with Promotores and community health workers on behalf of my Government clients for the past few years. These individuals are dedicated to their community; they are persistent, resourceful, savvy, compassionate, and noble. They have an admirable gift for service and above all, they will protect their community with “uñas y dientes” (tooth and nail).  As the demand for their services increases and more Government and public relations agencies (on behalf of their clients) reach out to them, it will be increasingly important to understand the best ways to approach them to create a genuine and sustainable relationship. The following are my recommended tips for creating such a relationship:

  1. Understand their work first, then identify if this is the right initiative for your campaign.
  2. There is not a national Promotores and CHWs program. These exist mainly at the local level. What works in Los Angeles may not work in New York.
  3. They know how to communicate information to the audience you want to reach. Don’t tell them what to do and/or how to communicate your information; they have the expertise you don’t have. It should be a collaboration.
  4. Spanish is their preferred language. Try to assign a Spanish-speaking staff member to manage the outreach.
  5. Pay them for their time, especially if you require a long term commitment and evaluation of the activities.

All (credible) News is Local

Aug 24

Call it the Ron Burgundy effect. Pew Research Center for the People & the Press put out its most recent ratings of believability of news organizations and it’s bad. The average positive believability across 13 news organizations went from 62% in 2010 to today’s low of 56%. To give you some kind of perspective, 10 years ago the average rating for the news organizations tested was 71%.  What they did is ask 1001 people to rate 13 news organizations from 1 – 4 and “a rating of 4 means someone believes ‘all or most’ of what the news organization says; a rating of 1 means someone believes ‘almost nothing’ of what they say.”  So consequently, a score of 3 or 4 is “positive” for believability and a score of 1 or 2 is “negative” for believability.

So how does Ron Burgundy fit into this? Local TV (along with 60 Minutes) is on top when it comes to believability – they got a 65% positive rating and 35% negative rating – and they’ve maintained that top status for a long time. In case you’re not a fan, Ron Burgundy – played by comedian Will Farrell in the movie Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy – is a 1970’s anchorman for a fictional  local San Diego TV station. While the movie facetiously portrays the 70’s as the heyday of the anchorman as local celebrity (with all the braggadocio a burgundy blazer can inspire) , Pew’s research suggest most people still look to their local anchors and reporters as the most credible sources of information in their communities.

In 2011, Pew did a similar study this time comparing the low state of believability of news organizations with other sources of information. They found that though the credibility of news organizations have been on the decline for years, others fared worse: “while the public holds news organizations in low regard, they are more trusted as a source of information than are federal, state and local governments, the Obama administration and business corporations.”

All this is to say, when developing a media strategy, think local… as in local TV news. If you want to get your message out and have it believed, then you’ll need to depend on local TV newsgathers to help you. While they have lost some of their sway and influence (and wide ties) of the 70’s, they often are the best we’ve got in a jaded and skeptical world to inspire at least a modicum of trust.

By the way, Will Ferrell is already working on Ron Burgundy’s return in Anchorman 2.

Can Counting Bikes Change Behavior?

Aug 23

I recently read an article about a bike counter that was installed on a bridge in Portland, OR. The idea is that it counts how many cyclists cross the bridge and then keeps a visible tally for all who pass by, on bikes or otherwise.  From midnight to 3pm, Portland’s Hawthorne Bridge had a cyclist count of nearly 3,500. Pretty impressive.  In addition, the counter tracks several other factors including time of day and the weather.  Information like this can help city planners keep roads safe for all and provide better access for cyclists.

But more than just counting bikes, I wonder if seeing just how many of their fellow peers are pushing pedals will help motivate others to take up cycling as a more regular mode of transportation?  Surely knowing thousands of others are taking up biking will inspire action in others to do the same.

Nowadays this tactic of using positive peer pressure to change your perception of what your neighbors are doing is used widely and can be greatly influential.  From a note in your electric bill comparing your energy efficiency to that of your neighbors to seeing their recycling bin by the curb, harnessing the power positive peer pressure can have an immense impact and help positively change behaviors.

What do you think? Would driving by a sign promoting just how many of your fellow citizens were biking make you more aware of cycling as an option? What behaviors have you changed due to a little positive peer pressure?

Can Counting Bikes Change Behavior