This week I had the occasion to be at UCLA for a very interesting meeting (more on that in a future post).  As I arrived at LAX to return my rental car, I drove past a huge billboard at the corner of 96th Avenue and Airport Blvd (just across from the Renaissance Hotel)  that made me do a double take.  The billboard, said in gigantic white letters on a red background:  “This year thousands of men will die from stubbornness.”

Naturally, my first thought was this:  Why thousands? If men can die from stubbornness, aren’t they all doomed?  If stubbornness is the proximate cause of death, we are looking at a wipe-out of society on a pretty imminent basis.  The bad news:  no more future generations.  The good news:  no one will hassle us women about buying too many shoes and all the top-paying private equity jobs will soon be available.

So figuring that I had misread this billboard, I actually made a U-turn and drove past it again (not sure what made me do it:  alarm or wishful thinking). What I noticed on my second pass was the very fine print, which said, “Learn the preventative medical tests you need. AHRQ.gov.”

The billboard is apparently part of an U.S. Government Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality Department ad campaign targeted to get men to stop avoiding the doctor and to go and get the medical screening tests recommended each year, such as those for cholesterol, diabetes, high blood pressure, cancer and other illnesses.

According to AHRQ, the ads are targeted at middle-aged men who, according to their research, are 24 percent less likely than women to have visited the doctor within the past year and 30 percent more likely than women to be hospitalized for preventable conditions such as congestive heart failure and complications from diabetes.  The ad campaign consists of billboards and public service announcements that will run through Men’s Health Week (June 13-19) and Father’s Day (June 20).

When you go to the website that is associated with the billboard you can view several videos that are designed to be funny, scary and compelling.  One shows a realtor welcoming a family (obligatory middle-aged white guy included) to their new home.  She says, “You will have many happy years here, except you (pointing to dad); you will die in 3 years from the same thing your dad died of, which could have been detected with a simple test.”  Have a nice day.

In another of the videos that really gets men where they live, a dad and his son are buying a new TV at an electronics store and the young clerk tells the guy not to bother with the 5-year warranty since he won’t be around to take advantage of it.  Now that’s harsh.  Never get between a man and his electronics purchase.

It’s a very interesting approach.  The whole concept of using the mass media to promote health is certainly not new, but it seems to be very much on the rise.  There are companies and organizations now trying this from almost every angle, including gaming (I have heard companies say, “I’m going to be the Zynga for health!”), advertising, and social media.  We already have at least one TV show focused on wellness: The Biggest Loser.  Believe it or not, that is not a documentary about the new Charlie Sheen, but one that pits people against each other in a competition to lose the most weight.

For every ad promoting McDonalds or Marlboros we are seeing more and more ads that promote better health by preventing illness, stopping smoking, and eating better.  Yesterday I had a company present to me in my office that has the creation of entertaining health-oriented videos as a core part of its business model (if you click on this link, click on the blue link that says “entertain” to see their promo video…you will never look at french fries the same way again).

Another company I saw this week is focused on building an entire social media company around health.  This is not a new idea but no one has yet managed to create THE destination site–a true Facebook kind of experience–for those who come to learn and share about health, wellness and illness.  While I’m sure someone will crack that code, when I think about a central place for random people to communicate about their health, all I can see in my mind is the communal dinner table at a Jewish assisted living facility in downtown Fort Lauderdale.  Instead of a “Like” button, they are going to have to have an “Oy, I have that too and mine is worse” button.  Maybe instead of “friending” someone you will “infect” them!

But I digress.  As the AHRQ so aptly says on its Healthy Men website, “The single most important way you can take care of yourself and those you love is to actively take part in your health care.”  When AHRQ says that, they mean that people should be proactive in finding out if they are sick by getting preventative tests as recommended.  That is essential to ensuring that illnesses are found early, before they become chronic, difficult to treat and/or deadly.

However, to take a different twist on it, it is becoming more commonly known that somewhere between 50-80% of all chronic illness can be avoided by making good health and lifestyle choices.  This needs to become an even more familiar refrain for consumers as they become more and more responsible for paying for their own healthcare insurance and related services, an experience that is most certainly in the future of every American given the changes underfoot in our healthcare insurance landscape.

I hope AHRQ’s next media campaign focuses on tangible ways to prevent the onset of illness in kids and teens before it ever starts, which will make a great follow up topic for them.  As I have said elsewhere, telling people to shut up and eat their vegetables doesn’t seem to be working.  It’s going to take some very creative and long-term marketing to make a dent in this issue and we know it can work:  witness the approximately 50% decline in U.S. smoking since the advent of aggressive communication campaigns to attack the smoking epidemic.  It may be too late for some adults, but if we can affect young people’s lifestyle choices and customs, our healthcare system has a chance of financial survival, even if it is after all the men over 40 have died from stubbornness.

Unfortunately, it’s an all-out war out there in mass media land.  For every marketing thrust towards good health, there is a corresponding parry from tobacco-, sugar- and fat-purveyors to lure us to the dark side.

For the good health warriors to win on the teen media front, they are going to need the big guns–Rihanna, Arcade Fire, those annoying kids from Twilight, Justin Bieber, the cast of Glee– to get out there and make good health choices seem cool.  As for companies, I am searching for the one that that has figured out how to make texting into an activity that lowers blood sugar and prevents cancer.  Now that’s a business.

Lisa Suennen is a managing member of Psilos Group, co-headquartered in the Bay Area and New York City, The firm has funded and developed more than 38 innovative companies, including ActiveHealth, AngioScore, Click4Care, Definity Health, ExtendHealth and OmniGuide. Lisa blogs at Venture Valkyrie.

6 replies »

  1. While the intent of this sign is laudable and it is fairly obvious that they’re trying to use humour to get through a very resistant barrier, I can’t help noticing that this is yet another health initiative which blames men for their own poor health. That’s right, blame the patient. The women’s health lobby has selfishly monopolised the health dollar and continues to perpetuate the myth taht women are hard done by when it comes to health care. Ken Kesey was right.

  2. Oh for god’s sake another entirely worthless government bureau and this one is run by misandrist sexist lesbian feminist separatists. Prolly all have Holley Near on speed dial. .

    Do you idiots really think that there’s a delta between stubborn men vs women?

  3. Hi Margalit–sounds like an excellent idea although I fear that if everyone in America ceased texting and cell-phoning at the same time we might enter some new time-space dimension from which we could never return. On the other hand, maybe it’s sunny there! Lisa

  4. Here’s a disruptive innovation for your portfolio, Lisa:
    A technology that literally disrupts computers, facebooks, and the internet itself, with an option to disrupt 3G and 4G towers and cease all texting activities, so kids can go outside and play.
    I bet it will lower blood sugars significantly and even prevent some cancers.

  5. I love this post! The AHRQ, among all the government agencies addressing health, is a treasure. Keep it up, guys! (or gals….)