Is there any benefit to mass media campaigns designed to promote healthy behaviors or discourage unhealthy ones? Put aside preconceived notions about manipulation and political agendas for a moment ( 'just say no') and take a look at evidence presented in this issue of Lancet. As Rick and I discuss in this week's podcast, turns out there can be some positive outcomes to properly targeted messaging.
Researchers in Australia took at look at media campaigns (television, radio and newspapers as well as 'outdoor media' such as billboards) intended to impact tobacco and alcohol use, heart disease prevention, cancer screening, sex-related behaviors, and others. Both direct and indirect means to effect change were examined, as well as concurrent availability of specific services, products or additional information to support the desired behavior.
One example cited by researchers is antismoking messages accompanied by a phone number to enlist support for those desiring to quit, and additional messages extolling the social benefits of quitting. The conclusion is that efforts are generally more successful when a combination approach is taken. No surprise there.
One surprising finding, however, is that some forms of messaging may actually promote the undesired behavior. Such a conclusion may be drawn related to some appropriate alcohol use campaigns, with one reason given for such an outcome the preponderance of advertising undertaken by manufacturers countering the public health message. What's a responsible society to do?
We can hardly outlaw advertising by manufacturers of legal goods, cigarettes and alcohol included. But we can create effective messages to counter the ads, hopefully with exposure early enough in life to help people make educated choices. As Rick points out, now that traditional media doesn't have the sway it used to, social media has an opportunity to not just convey information but create opinion. When opinion becomes widespread it can impact policy making as well. So we choose to be optimistic about the enabling power of information. That's why we podcast!