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The problem of pushing individual accountability as a way to sell “good” health behaviors

People are great. In spite of our misguided moments, we’re generally trying to do best by ourselves, our families, and if we can swing it, by our neighbors and our communities.

If you share this basic belief, you might be troubled by the tone that creeps into a lot of consumer health messages. These messages suggest America’s trillion-dollar health care problem is our fault, because we eat Reese’s Peanut Butter cups, smoke, drink, sit on the couch, or forget to get our blood pressure checked.

The messaging I’m talking about often emphasizes individual accountability for “better health behaviors.” The object of the communication is a mysterious cabal of unhealthy Americans, kind of like Reagan’s Welfare Mothers, whom it demonizes.

Media studies suggest focusing on individual accountability is not only ineffective, but worse, avoids targeting social and economic factors that may be the underlying causes of health problems.

The study in question, Advertising Health: The Cause for Counter-Ads, is actually about a form of advertising recommended by many public health, communications, and media experts. Personally, I don’t love counter ads, which generally include some form of attack against an organization or institution. However true, any message posed as a negative risks not asserting a positive. I think positives reflect better on the speaker as a brand foundation for ongoing messaging.

But the real revelation of this study is not so much the specifics of the counter ad format. It’s the underlying approach, which is significant in the way that it avoids targeting the individual. Rather, it builds affinity with the audience, pitting viewers as unwitting players in a bigger but unbalanced story, one with inequities that that can now be righted.

So—rather than saying, “Hey, stop eating so many carbs, fatty,” we can say, “Foodmakers mix secret ingredients into everyday foods that taste just fine by themselves.” The ad could go on to reveal the shocking number of unnecessary calories contained in mega-carb additives. The tone could bear some enlightened outrage at the challenge to our independence posed by producers, who try to inform our sense of what tastes good.

This approach works better, the study suggests, because it raises the attention of communities and institutions whose programs, support or legislation can help attack the real problem. It led to things like the creation of food labels, for example.

I think this approach works better not because it leads to more legislation, but because, as the recipient of it, I don’t resent the message. It doesn’t judge me for my waistline or my habits. It doesn’t assume I have the time or income to spend two hours at the gym or buy organic foods. It has some compassion for my position but also makes me feel like I have power and choice.

Mostly, it doesn’t judge me for the ill effects of being a Consumer (think about the real meaning of that word), which is exactly what government and industry want me to be.

Here’s an ad I’d love to see. We hear a quirky, fast-paced, techno-carnival soundtrack.
We follow one and then more everyday people trying to get through their everyday lives despite a barrage of comforts and conveniences, all of which impede their natural progress. (If you’ve ever been corralled onto a moving walkway in the airport to traverse the distance of only a couple gates, you’ll get what I mean).

Corporate health care is part of the same consumer system that continually peddles convenience. With a change in awareness, health care leaders can help extract the industry from this giant, idling hamster wheel. Health care can become a powerful agent of reform for our whole way of life.

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