Subliminal health education

You’ve heard of subliminal advertising, but what about subliminal educating for health?

But who’s tried selling health to us where we live, work, and play? What about using ‘mainstream’ TV shows as a public health education tool?

Kaiser Family Foundation’s seeding of Grey’s Anatomy produced some surprising results.

Kaiser worked with the show’s Director of Medical Research to pick health topics based on 3 criteria:

  1. Appropriate for the show
  2. Not well understood by the American public
  3. Topic where learning could be "measured in a straightforward way" in a survey

The winner? Mother-to-child transmission of HIV (relatively low risk – less than 2% – if mom receives treatment during pregnancy). Without treatment, the risk of transmission is closer to 25%.

The 3-year old TV show has an average viewing field of 20 million. The variety of health/medical scenarios faced by the fictional staff of Seattle Grace provide "a multitude of opportunities for communicating health information to the public."

The storyline aired on May 1, 2008, after a briefing with the Kaiser Family Foundation, the Grey’s Anatomy writers, and even a young woman who is HIV positive and delivered a healthy baby (husband HIV negative).

Three rounds of surveys, with separate survey respondents, were conducted: pre-show, post-show (week episode aired) and follow-up (6 weeks after show).

For more information on the scripting, survey process, and results, see the KFF report here.

Bravo to the Kaiser Family Foundation for this unique "edu-tainment" experiment.

Key Findings:

  • proportion of viewers aware that, with proper treatment, there is more than a 90% chance of an HIV-positive woman having a healthy baby increased by 46 percentage points after the episode aired (from 15% to 61%).
  • 17% of respondents in the post-show survey volunteered the specific response that the woman has a 98% chance of having a healthy baby (WOW).
  • Six weeks after the episode, respondents who gave the correct response had dropped to 45%, but was still substantially higher (by 30 percentage points) than it had been prior.
  • proportion of viewers who agreed that “It is irresponsible for a woman who knows she is HIV positive to to have a baby” went down by 27 percentage points after the show aired, from 61% to 34%.

"Six weeks after the episode aired, the proportion who agreed with the statement had gone back up to 47%, which was still a statistically significant decrease of 14 percentage points from the pre-show level."

More interesting still are self-reported effects watching Grey’s Anatomy has for viewers:

  • (45%) of regular viewers learned something new about a health care issue from watching the show (although only 29% of all viewers can actually name an issue).
  • Younger and lower-income viewers are more likely than others to say they have learned something new about health from the show (50% of 18–39-year-olds, compared to 38% of those age 60 or older; and 51% of those with incomes under $50,000 a year, compared to 41% of those above that level).
  • Seventeen percent of all Grey’s viewers say they have either tried to find more information about a health care issue (13%) and/or actually spoken to a doctor or other
  • Healthcare provider about a health issue (9%) because of something they saw on the show.
  • Lower-income viewers are more likely to say they sought information or visited doctor in response to the show than higher-income viewers are (24% compared to 14%).

So, if we want a ‘viral’ approach to educate American consumers about a killer health app (PHA, PHR, etc) and drive rapid adoption towards 30-40 percent, should (or shouldn’t we) be considering product placement, just like the big consumer good companies?

Yes? No? Are public health initiatives up to competing with global multinationals for viewers attention? Should they be?

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3 replies »

  1. Explosive stuff Jen,
    so where does the Gov. comes in, now it shows it has its (this) effect.
    Isn’t the Health Dept working years and years to get fractions of these numbers with their programs.
    Perhaps they should get on this train, on the other hand for some it get’s a little spooky ?
    Lucien Engelen, The Netherlands