Health Marketing, Risk Communication, and the Media

August 7, 2008 by
Filed under: CDC Watch, General, Parents' Pages 

Remember the Great Influenza Vaccine Shortage a few years back?

Panic swept the nation after the FDA rejected many European flu shots because of possible contamination during manufacturing.  What was left was rationed according to age and risk factors, and the public could  be seen every night on the news waiting in long lines to get the remaining doses.

Now, setting aside for the moment the ongoing questions regarding the usefulness of flu shots in any age group, especially the elderly, one might come to wonder what has changed in recent years to bring about this new terror regarding influenza.

The answer, as outlandish and implausible as it might sound, is that this fear has been manufactured and marketed by the people in public health.

Here you see:

Getting Ready for 2004-2005:
Lessons (Re-)Learned
[Including the Seven-Step Recipe for
Generating Interest in,
and Demand for, Flu
(or any other) Vaccination

And here you see what the CDC’s “recipe” entails…

“Recipe” that Fosters Higher Interest and
and Demand for Influenza Vaccine (1)

1. Influenza’s arrival coincides with immunization “season” (i.e., when people can take action)

2. Dominant strain and/or initial cases of disease are:
Associated with severe illness and/or outcomes
Occur among people for whom influenza is not generally perceived to cause serious complications (e.g., children, healthy adults, healthy seniors)
–In cities and communities with significant media outlets (e.g., daily newspapers, major TV stations)

3. Medical experts and public health authorities publicly (e.g., via media) state concern and alarm (and predict dire outcomes)–and urge influenza vaccination.

4. The combination of ‘2’ and ‘3’ result in:
A. Significant media interest and attention
B. Framing of the flu season in terms that motivate behavior (e.g., as “very severe,” “more severe than last or past years,” “deadly”)

5. Continued reports (e.g., from health officials and media) that influenza is causing severe illness and/or affecting lots of people–helping foster the perception that many people are susceptible to a bad case of influenza.

6. Visible/tangible examples of the seriousness of the illness (e.g., pictures of children, families of those affected coming forward) and people getting vaccinated (the first to motivate, the latter to reinforce)

7. References to, and discussions, of pandemic influenza–along with continued reference to the importance of vaccination.

This is considered “communication” by people who work in public health. Reasonable people in the public being “communicated” to might wonder at what point this type of communication crosses the line into “fearmongering”, but we’ll leave that for the reader to decide.

In our recent articles on the exaggerated benefits (based on CDC “scientific research”) of the immunization program (which is run by the CDC) we noted that the flurry of of news reports quoting a supposed 33,000 lives saved a year by vaccines, was likely the result of a CDC press release.

Here (link is currently broken, sorry) you can read a bit about how the “health marketers” think and operate:

“Misperceptions, Raw Emotions, Potent Strategies: Working with Traditional and New Media to Promote the Facts about Vaccine Safety”

The next slide is about pay versus earned media, and both [unintelligible] to be used. Paid media is when you’re paying for something to be placed in print, regular TV, or even online, so it’s advertising. It’s the one kind of way that you can really control the content of what you’re saying, because you’re paying for something to be placed exactly as you’re positioning it

Earner media, however, is free exposure. It gives more credibility. It’s something that’s written in the newspaper, so people believe it more. It’s on television. It’s not been paid for. But when you are using earned media, you really are giving up your full control. You don’t have full control over what is being said or written about.
The next slide is how to get your story out. The most important thing to do, the first thing you need to do, is to create a solid media plan with goals and objectives, an observation of your situation. What are people saying in your community? How are parents feeling about vaccinations? What is the coverage like? What are the media saying? Who are your target audiences?

So who are your audiences? Certainly the media is a key audience and parents concerned and/or or need for childhood vaccines is your primary audience. In working towards conveying your information to them, you want a media strategy with just the right mix to meet your objectives, so you want a combination of earned media and paid advertising, feature stories.

So if the stories you see in the news sometimes strike you as scripted to persuade you to vaccinate your child, you’d be correct.

Here’s another example of “communicating” about vaccines, from the full text of this.

Yes, that’s right…the only point of the communication is to compel you to perform the “behavioral objective” (aka – consent to immunization).  That’s the desired “health behavior”.

So what compels people to perform behavioral objectives?

Here we can read:

Risky Business: Challenges in Vaccine Risk Communication


In addition the acceptability of a risk is determined by whether it induces fear or dread and whether it is memorable

And that “fear” and “dread” we’re supposed to feel to achieve the behavioral objective of vaccinating our kids, on time, every shot, on schedule, is quite obviously the cornerstone of the much used “seven step recipe for generating interest in, and demand for, vaccines” (influenza and otherwise.)

So when you see something alarming in the news about a disease, make mental note of if it fits “the recipe”. As much as it might look like science or news, it could very well be marketing.


2 Comments on Health Marketing, Risk Communication, and the Media

  1. concerned parent on Fri, 8th Aug 2008 3:34 pm
  2. Bravo for the piece on risk communication.

    Page 15 of the Institute of Medicine’s 1997 pamphlet entitled “Risk Communication and Vaccination” describes Vaccine Information Statements (“VIS”) as “written at a fifth to seventh grade reading level”. According to the US Census Bureau, over 80% of the US adult population have earned a high school diploma and over 25% have earned a bachelor’s degree or higher. So what is the rationale for the one to two page, dumbed-down VIS’s, versus the 25+ page vaccine package inserts which contain detailed risk disclosures? It is not about the presumed reading level of the population, but about slanting the information such that the risks of the disease appear greater than the risks of the vaccination. It’s about marketing, which is simply a euphemism for propaganda. For those of you who think that the use of the P-word is stretching it, take a look at the Webster’s Dictionary definitions for the word propaganda: 2: the spreading of ideas, information, or rumor for the purpose of helping or injuring an institution, a cause, or a person 3: ideas, facts, or allegations spread deliberately to further one’s cause or to damage an opposing cause; also : a public action having such an effect.

    The CDC’s and AAP’s underestimation of the the intelligence of the general public is one of the reasons why vaccination has become such a controversial subject. Intelligent parents are no longer merely relying upon the pro-vaccination propaganda disseminated by institutions. It would behoove these institutions to realize that the continued proliferation of recommended vaccines will only fuel further questioning and less compliance. Here’s a link to IOM’s booklet:

  3. wallacesmum on Mon, 29th Sep 2008 5:26 pm
  4. In my mind, these discussions betray an underlying insecurity about the vaccine program. I find it hard to believe that we are in a straight-up debate over the facts, when the pro-vax policy makers feel the need to discuss agitprop. If vaccines are so great, why don’t the facts suffice to tell the story?

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