Tell Me a Story: A Novel and Effective Way to Promote Behavior Change

Feb 03

One of the first rules for those of us in the creative writing business is show, don’t tell. In other words, don’t tell me that the 12-year-old in your story who’s heading off to her first day at a new school is scared or nervous. Show me how she feels by making me feel it too–the rush of heat that comes to her face when she shows up in the wrong homeroom and has to get up, in front of 30 laughing strangers, and make her way back to the door. The feeling of invisibility as she stands next to the beautiful cheerleader at the adjoining locker. The absolute certainty that her lunch tray is going to slip from her shaking hands as she approaches a table in the cafeteria where all of the popular kids are sitting.

While this approach is the essence of great storytelling, it’s also a valuable tool in social marketing–one that enables you to illustrate the behavioral changes you’re striving to create as opposed to simply telling people what they should do. A little over a decade ago I worked on a team that had the opportunity to do just that in the development of a public education campaign to address the problem of bullying, particularly among “tweens” between the ages of nine and 13. The stakes for success were significant. There had been numerous high profile incidents of school violence that stemmed from bullying the year before we developed the campaign, and there was a growing certainty among experts that the problem had reached crisis proportions.

The key challenges in developing the campaign were the complexity of the messaging and the myriad goals of our client–the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). HHS wanted to convince kids not to bully other kids . . . while convincing “bystanders” to step in and use positive peer pressure to get bullies to change their behaviors . . . while ultimately supporting the creation of school-wide cultures where bullying went from being a “rite of passage” to something that would not be condoned.

Obviously a series of Public Service Announcements wasn’t going to accomplish all of this. We had to find a way to directly engage kids on an emotional level to convince them to change their attitudes and the way they behaved toward each other. Our solution was inspired by the use of “novellas” and serial dramas, which have been a key component in social marketing efforts in Spanish-speaking and developing nations for the past four decades and more recently in U.S. efforts as well.

Created in print, radio, television and Web formats, serial dramas utilize suspenseful stories with interesting characters to capture the attention of target audiences and demonstrate the types of behaviors that will solve problems and improve lives. They’ve succeeded in bringing about significant shifts in behavior toward family planning, HIV/AIDS prevention, the education of girls, ending the abuse of women, and even the conservation of natural resources.

As described in this January 28 New York Times story about the use of soap operas to promote behavior change in developing countries, “Successful soaps tend to be smartly written, sexy and replete with plot twists and love triangles. In the best-case scenario, the show becomes popular, and viewers begin to incorporate some of the themes into their lives.” The story goes on to report that “some, though not all, have also been successful commercially and have resulted in documented changes in behavior. The long-running South African television series ‘Soul City’ has 12 million viewers and is as familiar as Coca-Cola to black South Africans. Regular viewers are almost four times as likely to use condoms than others. In Saint Lucia, the radio drama ‘Apwé Plézi’ (‘After the Pleasure’) became so popular that producers had to set up a separate helpline for people requesting information on family planning. Brazilian women with exposure to soap operas, which usually portray small families, have been found to have significantly lower fertility than others.”

While novellas have been used by organizations such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to encourage people to take short term actions (such as getting vaccinated for the flu) the format is particularly well-suited to communications efforts that are multidimensional and that aim to bring about long term change in a society. As noted by William N. Ryerson, President of the Population Media Center, which has incorporated serial dramas in numerous education efforts, the programs capture the attention of target audiences with compelling storylines and characters and “allow time for the audience to form bonds with the characters and evolve their own thinking at a gradual pace in response to problems that have been well illustrated in a storyline.”

Ryerson  also notes, and supports with ample evidence in this paper that “the emotional context of a melodrama improves retention of lessons learned by the audience, in much the same way that we remember the details of where we were on September 11, 2001 much more clearly than on an ordinary day.”

Our creative team (which included people who wrote fiction in our time out of the office) had a lot of fun developing our serial drama to address bullying. Knowing that our “tweens” spend about 120 percent of their lives online, we chose “webisodes” as the platform.  Based on research, we knew middle schoolers liked animation, so we used personified animals as characters in the story. “KB,” the sweet, shy girl who was bullied in her new school, was a puppy, and “Cassandra,” her chief “mean girl” tormentor, was a cat. Thrown into the mix were a popular science teacher – characterized as a stork – who intervened when he saw the bullies in action, and two cool kids – a bunny and a monkey–who likewise intervened as peer bystanders and helped save the day.

Stop Bullying Now Webisodes screenshot

A decade later, HHS still promotes these webisodes as a public engagement tool.  To learn more about the Population Media Center’s success in using serial dramas to change behaviors related to family planning and the treatment of women, literacy and other topics, visit their website.  Get a glimpse of some excellent work being done by HMA Associates, a cultural communications firm and frequent Ogilvy Washington partner on their website.

Do you know of a public education or social marketing effort that could benefit from this novel approach to changing behavior? If so, feel free to join the discussion.

This is Not About Cancer: How do we get consumers interested in their health?

Jan 19

Cancer: Everything causes it and a cure is always further away than we hope.

Public health graduate studies led me to believe (initially) that all public health is about cancer. Though these days I try to worry less about cancer (only because there are so many professional worriers—those whose life pursuit is the cure for cancer), and more about consumer engagement and industry transparency.

The problem is, of course that one cannot be engaged, nor enlightened by quality measures if their health is irrelevant to them until they fall ill. As social marketers we need them to be aware first, and then we can nudge them into contemplating, deciding and acting—actual behavior change. To that end, we are hard at work developing innovative consumer awareness and education campaigns.

We are also hard at work building infrastructure and partnerships to ensure that thought leadership is also innovative and relevant—so our campaigns are both high impact and highly informed.

Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) President and CEO Dr. Risa Lavizzo-Mourey notes, “The new public health operates out front, in the full light of day, connecting the dots, building partnerships, and creating collaborative relationships that reach far into every corner of the community.

This quote is from RWJF’s NewPublicHealth.org, a website targeting public health professionals to “spark an ongoing conversation about public health challenges, opportunities, evidence, solutions and innovations.”

It includes public health news, commentary and updates at all levels, and features veteran reporters, public health officials, noted researchers and academics, association heads and the public health leaders in the U.S. government.

I hope it realizes its potential to become the “pulse” of the public health field and moves people to act and take the professional risks necessary to create real change.

However, I confess that when I’d first heard of NewPublicHealth I thought it was going to be consumer-targeted. And I was excited about it. But for the average consumer getting excited about health means they need to relate and be entertained. There are non-traditional public health advocates, and some vilified by public health purists who are changing the face of public health.

Instead of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Johns Hopkins University and CeaseFire Illinois, we could have DiscoveryHealth, Disney, YMCA and, gasp, maybe even MTV setting the stage and starting the conversation. Did you know that MTV’s “It’s Your [Sex] Life” campaign won a Peabody?

For future blog posts, I’m going to start featuring these game changers.  Let’s face it, this crew is a lot more exciting than public health leaders and researchers. Maybe even interesting enough to make consumers think of their health as more than non-cancer.

So what do you think? Who would you invite to this consumer-targeted health site? Who do you think I should feature in my next blog post?

“Wake-Up Call” Campaigns – Do They Work?

Jan 12

In recent weeks, there have been a number of hard-hitting anti-obesity campaigns making headlines. As Trish Taylor described earlier this week, Georgia’s “Strong4Life” anti-childhood obesity campaign, introduced by the Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta, uses short ads, billboards, and TV spots depicting an obese child and statements including “fat kids become fat adults,” and “it’s hard to be a little girl when you’re not” to urge Georgia to “stop sugar coating the problem.” The campaign was selected for its shock value after research revealed that despite Georgia ranking second nationally for overweight and obese children, 50 percent of the people surveyed did not recognize childhood obesity as a problem and 75 percent of parents with overweight or obese children did not see their children as having a weigh issue. The campaign is planned as a $50 million project over five years, with three phases.

In addition, New York City launched subway ads this week, one of which features a diabetic man whose leg was amputated due to complications with the disease alongside of growing portions of soda and the statements, “Cut your portions. Cut your risk.” and “Portions have Grown. So has type 2 diabetes, which can lead to amputations.” By highlighting growing portion sizes and their potentially devastating consequences, the New York Health Department hopes to urge New Yorkers to be more aware of the quantity of their food and beverage choices. The campaign ads direct those interested to call 311 to receive a “Healthy Eating Packet.”

via New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene

Both campaigns have been heavily criticized in the media and by health professionals for their hard-hitting approach to raising awareness about obesity because of their failure to follow through on actionable messages and resources. In light of the ongoing dialogue about these campaigns, and our fear that campaigns such as these might deter future thought-provoking, arresting, and actionable public health campaigns, Trish and I have been discussing the value and effectiveness of “wake up call” campaigns. Here is our point of view. Read the rest of this entry »

Do the Strong4Life childhood obesity ads really stigmatize overweight kids?

Jan 11

The question isn’t have you seen the latest childhood obesity ads from Strong4Life, but do you have an opinion to add to all of those floating around?

While there seems to be a general consensus in the dialogue about this controversial campaign, that these ads have missed the mark in being particularly effective from a behavior change standpoint, these ads have also come under fire for further stigmatizing children who are struggling with obesity or are overweight. This is where I disagree—or at least where I become confused.

Warning: Fat prevention begins at home. And the buffet line.

Image: Children's Healthcare of Atlanta

How do these ads further stigmatize children who are obese or overweight? These ads highlight the unfortunate plight of these children who state that they don’t like to go to school because they get picked on, or that they prefer solitary play (e.g. video games) because of the teasing of other children in other settings—or the clearly disturbed question of a young boy who asks his mother: “Mom, why am I fat?”. I’m not clear how these dramatizations are pointing fingers at these children or how they further add to the stigma associated with overweight or obesity. In fact, these ads very powerfully use the stigma these children are already facing to call attention to the issue. Perhaps that is the greatest strength of these ads—they startle us, and make us face an issue through the eyes of the children that are affected. They cut through the clutter and compel.

Where they admittedly fall short is utilizing that attention they’ve garnered to deliver a strong call to action around what can be done to help prevent overweight and obesity. A truly missed opportunity.

To Blog or to Tweet, that is the question…

Jan 06

My apologies to Shakespeare, but the recent The Year in News 2011 put out by The Pew Research Center for Excellence in Journalism (PEJ) is helping me answer that question. PEJ has been putting out their analysis for five years and it is an excellent tool to help us media relations professions better understand what’s hot and what’s not in news and therefore appropriately tailor our pitches. Despite the herd mentally usually ascribed to media scribes, PEJ does point to differences, albeit subtle.

Here are my takeaways:

If you got a hard news story, pitch it to CBS over NBC or ABC. Conversely, if you have a lifestyle, celebrity to sports angle, first pitch ABC, then NBC before you bug CBS with it. That goes for morning shows or their evening newscasts. ABC was particularly keen on celebrities last year.

With international stories, your best bet is the NewsHour on PBS. On average, 39% of the NewsHour show was devoted to foreign events and U.S. foreign policy, compared with 28% in the media sample generally, according to PEJ’s report. Read the rest of this entry »

The Role of Optimism in Social Marketing

Jan 05

When I arrived home for the holidays, I rifled through my bookcase looking for a good read.  I stumbled upon a book I had purchased for a psychology class in college, “Learned Optimism,” by Martin Seligman, Ph.D.

A professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania and past president of the American Psychological Association, Seligman describes a number of scientific experiments and groundbreaking theories in this book.  But there were two ideas that resonated with me, and that I believe can be applied to the work we do in social marketing:

1. Optimism is integral to overcoming barriers to success.

Seligman posits that how an individual thinks about and explains an event (one’s explanatory style) strongly influences his reaction to that event. Seligman explains that while a pessimistic explanatory style can produce depression in response to everyday setbacks, an optimistic explanatory style can produce resilience in the face of tragedy. While this may sound obvious to cognitive behavioral therapists, even they may be surprised by how strongly optimism correlates with overcoming adversity and barriers to success.

By examining how individuals think about and explain good and bad events, Seligman was able to:

  • Help insurance companies recruit persistent salespeople who could outsell their peers;
  • Assist coaches in identifying baseball players who could perform under late-inning pressure; and
  • Predict Senate seat winners with unprecedented accuracy.

What did winning salespeople, baseball players, and Senate candidates all have in common? They were all optimists.

2. Optimism can be learned.

Even those who instinctively lean towards pessimistic explanatory styles can learn to be optimists. Seligman offers a host of tactics to help individuals think about obstacles differently, empowering them to react to stumbling blocks in life more positively and bounce back from larger obstacles more quickly than before. One technique Seligman recommends is that pessimists learn to argue with themselves, offering evidence that disputes negative beliefs that lead to negative actions. For example, if Jane believes that she is a failure because she had one cigarette after pledging to quit, she can contradict this belief by reminding herself of the many ways in which she is a success—she was just promoted at her job, has a great relationship with her kids, and is happily married.  By thinking about herself in this new and different way, Jane is more likely to reinvigorate her commitment to quitting than give into temptation the next time she craves a cigarette.

What are the implications for social marketers?

I believe that optimism can play a powerful role in driving behavior change.  When designing interventions, we often think about how to mitigate barriers to action, like cost, inconvenience, and accessibility.  But could pessimism be a barrier that has slipped under our radar? Can we leverage optimism where it exists and foster it where it doesn’t? What implications do you think this has for the way we target audiences, identify influencers, develop messaging, or create materials?

Powerful PSAs – What’s Working & What’s Next

Oct 13

Yesterday I attended a roundtable luncheon called Powerful PSAs, sponsored by the National Association of Broadcasters, TV Access, Nielsen, and Crosby Marketing Communications.

After a year of working in public service messaging through my work on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Inside Knowledge and Screen for Life campaigns, I was intrigued by the invitation and compelled to attend. My goal was to walk away with nuggets of wisdom on how to improve our PSA production methods and distribution techniques in the future.

The session kicked off with a panel of radio and television broadcasters from Beasley Broadcast Group, Inc.; WBAL-TV 11 in Baltimore, MD; NBC Universal Entertainment Group; Black Entertainment Network; and WUSA-9 in Washington, DC.

After listening to the panelists give their insights on “what works,” I realized there isn’t a ‘one-size fit all’ solution when it comes to production elements or getting your PSA placed. While the local station PSA directors on the panel said they value PSAs that provide community angles, the network station PSA directors noted that they value PSAs that are more ‘evergreen’ with national messaging.

Here are six take-aways from the luncheon:

  1. PSA directors are overwhelmed: One panelist estimated that a director can receive almost 58 or more requests per day. She asked social marketing practitioners in the audience to be patient.
  2. Go beyond broadcast: With limited air time and PSAs always competing for space with paid ads, relying solely on broadcast channels to air your PSAs could be a mistake. One panelist suggested looking at the PSA as a public service message that can be shared through other mediums such as the Internet and conveyed to audiences through earned media and partnerships as well.
  3. PSAs should be well-produced and submitted to stations in formats they use: All the panelists agreed that a PSA of poor quality will end up in the rejection pile every time. One sure-fire way to ensure yours does not is to make sure the PSA is high quality and produced in several formats (so that you can send station directors the format of their choosing). The growing trend is to air shorter versions such as a :15 or :20 format, however PSAs in :30 and :60 format are considered to be the most popular.
  4. Partnerships are the way to go: Finding out which “causes” the station has historically supported could help your PSA to get on the air. Many stations have causes they support, so considering a partnerships with stati
    ons that already support your issue is a viable option for ensuring your message is heard.
  5. Directors are wary of PSAs funded by corporations: All of the panelists noted that commercial ads disguised as PSAs is a growing trend in the fight for air time.  PSA directors are resistant to playing PSAs that may ultimately generate funds to a corporation. Instead, they would prefer to air PSAs that have a true call to action for consumers that does not involve a corporation in any way.
  6. Craft your pitch: While the panelists varied on how they liked to receive a pitch, the one consistent message was to keep it brief and leave off the Word attachments (they aren’t reading them!). The pitch should make the case for how the issue affects the station’s audience.  While your PSA may not make it on the air you can position your campaign or client as a resource on the issue, in case a news director is in need of commentary.

What do you think about these tips? Based on your experiences, which tip resonates with you the most?

Proceed Until Apprehended

Oct 13

“Proceed until apprehended,”  the rallying principle for social media experimentation & execution shared by Brandon Friedman, Director of Online Communications for the Department of Veterans Affairs captured the pioneering spirit of all of the panelists from the  October 6th Ogilvy Exchange: Can the Department of Defense realize the full power of  social media? The experienced panel of practitioners – rounded out by Jack Holt, former Senior Strategist for emerging Media at the Department of Defense, and Lieutenant Commander Chris Servello, Director of Emerging Media for the US Navy’s Chief of Information – shared very practical tales from the trenches for applying social media to some of the government and DoD’s most difficult communications challenges.

Lessons & Links
Social greatness comes from the inside out – Jack Holt shared a number of helpful lessons, but thematically returned multiple times to something often overlooked – it is critical to embrace the principles of better interaction and connection internally before the promise of social media engagement with external constituents can be fully realized.

Even small engagements are important.  If you visit the Department of Veterans Affairs remarkable Facebook page, you will see 1×1 questions and customer service being addressed in a very “public” forum.   Take a read through the discussions and see if that changes your impressions of the Department.

There is power in speaking directly to your audiences – Last week, LCDR Servello’s group at Navy released a YouTube video of the new F-35 fighter landing on the USS Wasp. This brief video clip has racked up a remarkable 200k+ view on YouTube in a week of release with no traditional media aircover – overwhelming evidence that there is an audience for the stories the Navy has to tell. Social media empowers them to speak directly to their audience in the same venue where they can carry the story forward to their networks. Read the rest of this entry »

Can the Department of Defense realize the full power of social media?

Oct 05

Nielsen reported recently that social networks and blogsites now account for more than 22 percent of Americans’ time spent online, more than twice than that of online gaming.  To put that in perspective, Nielsen lists 75 categories as “other,” which combined accounts for only 35 percent of Americans’ time online. Read the full report here: http://blog.nielsen.com/nielsenwire/social.

The enormous communications power of this medium is indisputable.  So what does this mean for an organization like Department of Defense (DoD) and the individual military services?

Clearly social networking provides enormous potential for increasing awareness of the military’s core activities, for recruiting, for informing Servicemembers, Veterans, and the general public quickly and efficiently on benefits, programs, and services.  But there are obvious downsides as well.  How transparent can or should DoD be?  Where do you draw the line between security requirements and the desire for Servicemembers to be active online ambassadors?  Is this a matter of education, technology, or some combination?

Ogilvy is excited to host a panel of social media experts from the Department of Defense and Department of Veterans Affairs to discuss this topic.  You can watch it live via our Facebook page starting at 9:00 am on Thursday, October 6.

Reseach on consumer response to big brands highlights value of stong narratives.

Oct 04

Martin Lindstrom’s piece in Saturday’s New York Times highlighted his research on whether consumers were “in love with” or “addicted” to their iPhones, given demonstrations of longing, sensory reaction and separation anxiety. His past research has used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRIs) to compare human responses to imagery from the world’s great religions and its great brands, examining reaction to images of globally-known products and religions; his findings showed that reactions were often comparable. While this article focuses on whether consumers are technically addicted to their iPhones (and other technologies), his work examining activation of the visual and auditory areas of the human brain has relevance to current discussions on neuroscience and the value of storytelling as a communications tool. Whether selling the latest technology, reinforcing a global brand or making a case for behavior change to drive common good, the importance of a strong narrative that evokes an emotional response from consumers is clear.