Communication expert: When health messages cause harm

“Health campaigns or advertisements that rely on fear appeals may convince people of the severity of a problem but they also can be harmful and ineffective,” says Susan E. Morgan, professor of communication, who specializes in health campaigns. “What we’ve learned from successful campaigns, such as increasing the number of organ donors, is that crafting compelling, specific audience-targeted messages and also giving them tools or information needed to change is what works best.”

Morgan’s research in health campaign effectiveness specific to organ donation has received more than $6 million of research funding. She is concerned that people with the best intentions are employing communication strategies that could be harmful rather than effective. For example, she cites a recent anti-childhood obesity campaign in Georgia. Another example of a harmful campaign includes the recent Pennsylvania initiative about the dangers of binge drinking. The campaign featured ads implying fault for date rape, and the controversial ads were eventually pulled.

“Like the obesity campaign, the binge drinking and rape ad essentially contributes to the problem they are attempting to address by placing blame or inflicting guilt,” Morgan says. “Instead, we need to address root causes of the problems.”

“And whether it’s obesity, binge drinking, cancer prevention or texting while driving, the reality is that complex social and physical issues cannot be solved by creating 30-second public service announcements or posters that issue statements like ‘Eat Healthy’ or ‘Turn Off the Video Games.'”

Morgan says any effective campaign addresses why people are not engaging in healthy behaviors. For example, most people know that drinking too much alcohol can make them sick or engage in risky behavior, so the question is why people continue to do so.

“A childhood obesity campaign should be addressing why parents aren’t feeding their children healthy meals or allowing more time for video games than physical exercise,” she says. “Based on those answers a campaign can be designed to provide tools, resources, information or action steps to parents to help them help their children.”

An example of another approach includes Morgan’s campaign strategies targeted toward worksites or drivers license bureaus – both places where large groups of people can be reached through careful targeting. One strategy that worked well was building a health campaign around people at a worksite whose lives had been affected by organ donation. From her work in New Jersey, Arizona, Kentucky, Texas, Alabama and other states, she saw the number of people registering to be organ donors increase significantly. Overall, the campaigns that Morgan and colleagues designed resulted in over 60,000 people registering to become potential organ donors.

“These targeted approaches also can be controversial, because sometimes it means the communication planners can only reach a small group rather than the general public,” she says. “But the direct individual approach can make a difference. When audiences hear from co-workers or people in their own communities whose lives had been affected by organ donation or cancer prevention screenings it can change their behavior.

“Public campaigns can stigmatize people engaged in the unhealthy behaviors, when time, resources and funds could be invested in understanding why most parents of obese children don’t recognize that weight is a problem. Early on, our organ donation campaigns benefited from studying entertainment media. It turned out that a lot of myths were being fed by what people say on TV. Now we know how to better communicate in our health campaigns.”

Writer: Amy Patterson Neubert, 765-494-9723, [email protected]

Source: Susan Morgan, [email protected]