Public health is a personal passion of mine, and marketing is a profession of mine, so when the two intersect, my eyes, ears and frontal lobe light up, and I get very excited. Yes, I am a dork. But, as exhilarated as I may be, the public health campaigns (or social campaigns, as the experts call them) that initially catch my interest are ultimately terribly disappointing.
Maybe it’s that the best marketers in the world aren’t working on public health campaigns. Maybe it’s that the best marketers in the world ARE working on public health campaigns, but care more about accolades and black tie affairs than the causes. Whatever it is, their efforts are ineffective, and the problems lie within the confines of marketing fundamentals and an understanding of modern-day campaign strategy.
One of the best public health campaigns of all time is, inarguably, the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer campaign. This campaign made the color pink synonymous with breast cancer, infiltrated numerous mainstream outlets (for both men and women) and made supporting breast cancer awareness trendy across demographics. I attended a breast cancer walk last fall, and there were all shapes, sizes, colors and sexes in attendance.
But what I think is more important is that a seemingly taboo subject (breasts!), and a very feminine problem is no longer embarrassing or private. The Susan G. Komen campaign has allowed women and men to feel comfortable talking about the issue – heck, they’ve made wearing pink during the month of October downright necessary for both sexes. If football-playing men can wear pink, then women can confidently visit a doctor, give themselves monthly exams and find support systems if they are afflicted.
The campaign is effective on multiple levels for multiple audiences. In fact, now, in terms of “sexy” causes, breast cancer awareness is almost boring because it’s done such a good job of positioning itself as THE women’s issue. The breast cancer story is old hat (in a good way). It started as a small, grassroots effort (like getting communities to attend walks and runs) and exploded into mainstream culture. And, as any good marketer knows, that’s how it has to happen. You can’t create top-of-mind awareness if people don’t know what to keep top of mind.
And then there’s The Heart Truth campaign. Sigh.
Launched by the National Heart Lung and Blood Institute, The Heart Truth is a campaign targeted at women (primarily African-American and Hispanic) to raise awareness about heart disease and encourage behavior change to decrease incidence among women. You may have seen signs of it in February in department stores or noticed the red dress logo on various consumer products. Most recently, at New York Fashion Week, a show was executed with celebrities wearing the red dress of their choice on the catwalk.
My first problem with this campaign is that “heart disease” is difficult to define – seriously, even their website can’t do it – and it’s not something you can see. The campaign espouses that heart disease is the #1 killer among women, but who has ever heard of anyone dying from heart disease? They do, of course, but we call it a heart attack or stroke or complications from a slew of other co-morbidities like high blood pressure, cholesterol, obesity and diabetes. “Heart disease” is a clinical term, not a conversational one. So, right away, there’s a cognitive dissonance about the primary message.
My second problem with the campaign lies in the execution, and it’s an issue that I have with a lot of marketing programs in general. Many marketing campaigns are more concerned with high-visibility, awards and flashy, fancy publicity opportunities rather than reaching their target audience. Instead of increasing awareness about the issue, it’s increasing awareness about the awareness program and missing the point entirely.
The fashion show? Besides the erroneous assumption that people of lower socio-economic status are keeping up with high fashion in New York, it’s also not delivering a message. Nothing about seeing spray-tanned reality stars in red taffeta is going to encourage someone to talk to their doctor about high blood pressure or to go on a diet or to exercise. At best, they’ll probably just want to wear red. Big deal. And ads in Cosmopolitan, logos on cans of Diet Coke and an in-store promotion at Macy’s? Again, these tactics are not engaging the people who need to change the most.
The Heart Truth campaign exists as a cause for other causes and companies to latch on to, so they can run a few maudlin press releases and get some exposure for themselves. It’s sad to think about outreach programs as competing against one another, but it’s very much the case, and The Heart Truth very blatantly positions itself against Susan G. Komen… and loses every time.
Yet, The Heart Truth failure of a campaign isn’t alone. Much like the marketing that we see every day for computers, restaurant chains and clothing lines, the perception that one-way communication with an audience can accomplish change is a false one. It takes grassroots efforts, education and advice (about specific issues) and a connection with people on an emotional level. Instead, we see campaigns that live on billboards and TV commercials – two mediums that don’t last long enough to really say anything profound at all. They may remind someone that a brand exists or make them laugh, but at the end of the day, it’s not going to change their purchasing decisions. And if marketers can’t sell a pair of tennis shoes, how can they expect to change someone’s everyday behavior? In this age of advertising over-exposure, it’s not easy.
Think about the causes you support – and no cause is really greater or lesser than another – and then think about whether or not the organization and campaign behind the cause is actually making a difference. You’ll be hard-pressed to find one that isn’t clever – but you’ll have just as much trouble finding one that works.