Harnessing Social Attention for Social Good

On a rainy morning in early June at the Academy of Sciences in Washington, DC, just following MCEngage and HealthDataPalooza IV meetings, I attended a workshop by the Institute of Medicine of the National Academy of Sciences. The important topic was childhood obesity, officially titled “Creating Equal Opportunities for a Healthy Weight.”

I was interested in what tools are being used to harness attention, create equal opportunities and avert public health crises before they start. If we’re going to have a value-based health care system built on healthy actions, we need to start healthy habits early.

Fittingly, there was a lot of talk on the topics of “engagement” and “attention” at the workshop. The first panel of the morning was on generating “Advertising, Promotion, and Education: Bringing Health Equity to the Message Environment” with Anthony Signorelli of the Ad Council.

This was great, I’ve been suggesting we need Ad Council-style messaging to win the Health Attention War. I’ve been writing about the need for a public health campaign like the sort that Ad Council produces. They have a great record in changing culture and behavior, and the need for appropriate messaging is going to be high on the list of new skills required for value-based health care systems.

Value-based care means behavior change, and marketing is in the domain of mass behavior change. Messaging is central to how we can get the attention (for both providers and patients) needed to get change moving in the right direction, but it’s also clear that messaging has changed since the effective campaigns of the past. It really is becoming more about the medium. To “broadcast” in the digital and social age, a message has to resonate enough that people want to repeat it, and share it with their friends.

First, let’s review a little of that past and take a look at what’s relevant today.

Celebrating it’s 70th Anniversary in 2012, The Ad Council was created after during World War II. According to Wikipedia:

“it was incorporated as the War Advertising Council (WAC) for the purpose of mobilizing the advertising industry in support of the war effort. Early campaigns encouraged enlistment to the military, the purchase of war bonds, and conservation of war materials.

After the conclusion of the Second World War the War Advertising Council changed its name to the Advertising Council and shifted its focus to peacetime campaigns.”

Recall that Dave Chase has likened our generation’s current war against out of control health care costs to what World War II was for the Greatest Generation because it is a war we have to win before it sinks us and our employers.

So, it was great to see the Ad Council taking on childhood obesity, an early battlefiled for better health care at lower cost. Here’s a clip (in Spanish) that’s cleverly simple enough that you probably get the message (awareness of BMI) even without Spanish skills (mine are poor, but I get it)


One in 3 children in the US are overweight or obese. Overweight kids are at greater risk for chronic diseases such as cardiovascular and diabetes. This is the long-term battle that will take a generation to win, but if the Ad Council’s history is any indication, it can be won. Look at the history of the Ad Council site and you’ll see a list of dangerous activities that were once prevalent, which are now largely not culturally accepted: drunk driving, not using seat belts, littering, domestic violence… the list goes on.

The Ad Council provides a list of case studies on 9 campaigns, including the iconic “Friends Don’t Let Friends Drive Drunk,” “A Mind is a Terrible Thing to Waste,” The Crying Indian, and the more recent “I am an American,” are highlighted. Messaging gets attention. Messaging has the power to change culture, even if it takes an entire generation.

Wil Yu had brought up the Ad Council at the MCEngage conference just two days prior the the Institute of Medicine in the context of changing culture around patient engagement.

Wil gives a great review of the cultural history of what caused littering and what ultimately helped stop it: innovation, incentives and culture. Wil Yu asked “What parts of patient interaction would be appalling to time travelers from the future?” from some future generation?

Yu envisions a future with patient access to information, appropriate access to technology, physical resources, high-quality interactions, informed decision-making, preventative care, interactions beyond the clinic, belief in engagement (from both providers and patients), all told with symbols and stories around patient engagement.

Some day, to use Wil Yu’s phrase, we’ll all be “appalled at how patients are engaged and cared for today” and we’ll be focused on health and wellness on a continuing basis, not on an illness basis. I hope that patients have these choices in our near future. It seems to be starting, and even early on it appears costs might be starting to slow down as patients, providers and employers have increasing incentives to (we hope) “right-size” health care costs.

What would an Ad Council campaign that creates a future for patient engagement look like? Could it lead to a change in ideas and culture? Could it lead to changes in behavior, a change in mindset around self-tracking? To better outcomes?

As Don Berwick (former interim head of Medicare and Medicaid and current candidate for governor of Massachusetts) said in a recent keynote: “It’s not a problem of possibility, it’s a problem of will.” #ani2013

It may also be a problem of creativity and innovation around getting people engaged.

Information and engagement can help with will. Social factors are strong motivators. A recent Wall Street Journal article declared that social technologies are the new “Don Draper” advertising.

Referring to a Heineken campaign featuring videos of people with innovative bottles that flash in time to the music in a club, the article says: “That reflects the big trend among advertisers this year: merging the physical and digital worlds by creating products that create buzz on social networks, while holding the attention of increasingly over-saturated consumers.”

Several people on the #HITsm chat, when I brought up the fact that getting social change is no longer about ads, expressed skepticism that this same style could work today.

And I’ll admit, although the Ad Council has shown some great, creative and social media-savvy campaigns, I couldn’t help but leave the event with the sense IOM was lacking in full appreciation of the power of social networks to influence behavior the way that Heineken and other companies have shown possible. Some of the speakers didn’t quite seem to fully appreciate this power available to harness these tools for public good.

I made the point in the IOM event during Q&A that each one of us (with a smart phone or computer and internet connection — not always a given) is a potential TV station, radio station, newspaper and book publisher. We all now have incredible, largely free, access to distribution of media. YouTube videos get 100s of thousands if not millions of views and downloads.

If you have an idea, a little creativity, and a message with social value, in many ways it’s easier than ever, and less expensive, to get out the message.

We need to harness this network of networks for better health and health messaging with creative campaigns that grab attention. In a value-based health care system, networked communications, social media and messaging will be cornerstones to help people get and stay healthy for less costs. It’s an attention war with companies that are starting to get really good at new media.

Ad Council is a prime example that, by speaking honestly about difficult societal problems in compelling ways, the world has been changed many times over. Let’s take that kind of messaging and arrive there even faster by utilizing the power of networks, technology (The new Don Draper), and a little creativity, to arrive at better health.

leonardMore from Leonard Kish


The following two tabs change content below.
Leonard is Principal and Co-Founder at VivaPhi, an agency that solves multi-disciplinary business problems involving data science, software, biomedical science, behavioral science, health care, product design, community development, marketing, consumer engagement and organizational design. He has been quoted in Forbes and other top-tier publications for thought leadership on patient and consumer engagement. In addition to his role at VivaPhi, he is Chair of the Marketing and Communications Group for the Collaborative Health Consortium. Prior to VivaPhi he held the position of Vice President of Operations at Capitis Healthcare International as well as executive positions with several startups. He started his career as a software requirements analyst on Qwest Communication’s highest priority IT project while earning a triad of advanced degrees from the University of Colorado. These included an MBA, a Master’s of Science in Information Systems and a Master’s in Biomedical Sciences (Thesis on System Dynamics in Parkinson’s Disease). Leonard earned a Bachelor’s in Zoology from Miami University in Oxford, Ohio. He’s interested in how systems evolve, and how to help them evolve, in a variety of unique contexts. Connect with Leonard: @leonardkish, LinkedIn and Google+