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Important Health Messages Lost in Static

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Important Health Messages Lost in Static

Picture of Barbara Feder Ostrov

I wrote this story to call attention to the "disease of the week" phenomenon and how it is turning important health messages into easily-dismissed cultural static.

"Disease of the Week" Publicity Can Overwhelm Consumers
Barbara Feder Ostrov
San Jose Mercury News
Monday, January 7, 2008

San Jose Mercury News | January 7, 2008
By Barbara Feder Ostrov

SAN JOSE, Calif. -- Every day, every week, every month of the year, somebody somewhere wants you to be aware of Something Very Important About Your Health.

December, for example, was a very good month to be aware of aplastic anemia, colorectal cancer and drunken-driving prevention.

If you've been too busy with the holidays to have paid attention to those worthy causes, however, worry not. January marks Healthy Weight Week and National Glaucoma Month, and February's the month to beef up your knowledge of Marfan syndrome, children's dental health and congenital heart defects.

So many months, so much to be aware of.

All that awareness is likely to cause insomnia, so it's fortunate that National Sleep Awareness Week falls in March. You'll need some coffee after tossing and turning all night, so grab a cappuccino and mull over the irony that March also marks Caffeine Awareness Month.

With so many commemorative health events ranging from the well-established (Breast Cancer Awareness Month) to the ridiculous (Genital Cleanliness Month), it's certainly easy to mock their proliferation. But some say America's love affair with "diseases of the week" is transforming useful health messages into easily dismissed cultural static.

"There's a day for everything," says Rhoda Weiss, a veteran health public relations consultant and national chair/CEO of the Public Relations Society of America. "We're bludgeoned with all these messages, and they're meaningless. We ignore it."

Indeed, some health commemorations are created for purely commercial reasons. Genital Cleanliness Month, for example, was created by a company that sells bidet soap. Public relations conglomerate Hill and Knowlton dreamed up Bladder Health Week, teaming with the American Foundation for Urologic Disease to help sell an anti-incontinence medical device.

The majority of events, however, are sponsored by well-meaning health advocates and associations. Some can be quite successful, particularly if they offer free medical screenings or other services.

Others, Weiss sighs, are simply media campaigns that offer little news or help for consumers. While television and radio programs might pick up on the disease of the week, particularly if the sponsors provide camera-ready patients, many newspapers refuse to cover them, with reporters saying they're not newsworthy, public relations industry observers say.

"If you're only going with the disease of the day to get your message out, it's not going to work," Weiss says. "These groups put so much into that one day, sometimes the resources aren't available the rest of the year."

Weiss lauds National Depression Screening Day, because mental health professionals around the country offer free evaluations for an illness estimated to affect 19 million Americans a year. The screening offers a concrete, valuable service to consumers. They clearly find it valuable: Since starting in 1991, the screening day has grown to serve about 85,000 people at 3,000 locations around the country.

Still, commerce can creep into the most apparently commendable health observances. In 2004, for example, the public relations firm Zer0 to 5ive, received a national award for piggybacking on National HIV Testing Day, sponsored by the National Association of People with AIDS, to promote Oraquick, a rapid HIV test. The firm's goal was to improve lackluster sales of Oraquick, according to its award entry.

Karen Sternheimer, a University of Southern California sociologist, was recently struck by the commercialization of breast cancer awareness on a recent Delta Air Lines flight, on which flight attendants wore pink ties and offered to sell her a pink drink in honor of Breast Cancer Awareness Month, with part of the profits going to a sponsoring non-profit.

Indeed, what started out as a highly regarded disease-awareness event is now facing criticism for its increased emphasis on pink lipstick sales and other product tie-ins that raise little money for breast cancer research and prevention but do boost sales for participating companies.

"It does become overwhelming," says Sternheimer, who also runs the Everyday Sociology blog. "Yes, it was Breast Cancer Awareness Month, but how many millions of women don't have access to mammograms? It's almost like a Band-Aid over our troubled health care system."