Reading this blog will make you healthier

It may surprise you to know that I have a tax disc holder which urges me to have only one sexual partner. I am currently drinking water from a bottle that is apparently united against malaria and I regularly drive past a rather disturbing billboard of a small cowering child who tells me that ‘Sleeping with me will not cure HIV’.

Welcome to the weird world of Social Marketing. In a city where there is lots of advertising space but precious few consumers to advertise to (the big exception being mobile phone companies who appear to have cracked the magic code of having a reason to advertise to everyone), so there is plenty of space for others to try and effect behaviour change via the medium of billboards and beyond that with radio and even television spots.

As somebody with a private sector marketing background, I somehow expected this to be my favourite part of the efforts to improve health. I dreamed of being bowled over by clever and imaginative campaigns that spoke to deeper cultural truths. I expected to hear of singular messages that got into people’s heads and enacted the level of behaviour change that P&G and those other titans of the consumer world regularly effect. And yet I must admit to feeling generally unmoved and almost disturbed by much of what I see.


One Stop AIDS campaign Zambia probably isn't quite ready for

The first thing to acknowledge is that for the most part I am not the target audience for these campaigns and so can only really comment indirectly on how effective they may be. The second thing to note is that it is a lot easier to convince a young person to change their brand of denim than it is to radically alter their perception of unprotected sex or their opinion of the role of women in society.

That said, I have stood amongst an audience of young people attending a free music festival waiting patiently for the star to finish his sermon about how great it is to get circumcised before moving on to his next hit and it struck me how odd it would be at a gig back home if the artist were suddenly to stop to outline the perils of a high fat diet.

The country is literally awash with health slogan t-shirts which amongst other things remind leaders to ‘keep their promise’ – if only a flimsy bit of Chinese fabric could achieve what nobody else has managed. I may be called churlish for raising an eyebrow at some of these efforts. As so often in aid there seems to be the mantra “if it only changes one persons mind then its worth it” or “it can’t cause any harm so why not?” And yet I sometimes wonder if we have created an environment where people are so over saturated with slogans and exhortations to live ‘healthier lives’ that now all health messages just pass straight over them. My friend wears a very funny t-shirt with a picture of Celine Dion above a reminder that ‘Sleeping with me will not cure diabetes’.

The results of a very large behaviour change programme here in Zambia were recently presented and to everyone’s consternation certain risky behaviours actually increased during the period of communication. I’m not sure if we should be too surprised. Despite 20+ years of placing warnings on cigarette packs, research has shown it to have close to zero impact on smokers. Interestingly the only real effect was seen after the drastic step was taken to show smoker’s lungs (apparently due to some visceral unconscious response our bodies have to visibly diseased organs).

Tragically for AIDS campaigners everywhere, there is one piece of anti-marketing you still hear time and again “why would you use a condom when you wouldn’t suck a sweet with the wrapper still on?” Until the great social marketers amongst us come up with something equally enduring, compelling and universal in its message, I’m afraid I remain to be convinced.


One Response to “Reading this blog will make you healthier”
  1. ID like to say tht this was hilarious…….hahahahhahah

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