Prof: Local health campaigns not reaching adults with bad habits

September 30, 2004

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. - Many Americans are not going to improve the way they eat or start exercising until Bart Simpson, Monday Night Football announcers or celebrities in People magazine tell them to, says a Purdue University expert in health communication.

"Often our health campaigns try to reach the growing number of unhealthy Americans with public service announcements or by planning activities to attract local media coverage," says Mohan Dutta-Bergman, an assistant professor in Purdue's Department of Communication who studies social marketing. "It isn't working. Yes, a story in the local newspaper or on the nighttime news reaches people, but that audience, for the most part, already engages in a healthy lifestyle.

"If we want to reach the at-risk American population, we need to target the sources of their information - soap operas, situation comedies and sports programs on television, as well as entertainment magazines."

Dutta-Bergman's research shows that healthy adults who eat well, exercise regularly and don't smoke, get their information from newspaper stories and evening news. Young adults also are less likely to read a newspaper, and this is a crucial age for people to develop healthy habits, he says.

His research is based on analysis of two surveys, the 1999 DDB Needham Lifestyle Study conducted by Market Facts and the 1999 HealthStyles Data by Porter Novelli. Both surveyed more than 2,000 adults. Dutta-Bergman's analysis of the first survey appeared in the August Health Communication journal, and his second publication, "Reaching Unhealthy Eaters: Applying a Strategic Approach to Media Vehicle Choice," will appear in November's Health Communication journal.

"While some public campaign strategists might argue that getting the information about frequent exercise, healthy eating habits or drunk driving out there is all that can be done with limited budgets, my research shows this approach is not reaching the at-risk population who need this information," he says. "If the goal is to reach this at-risk group, then money is being wasted on media events and press releases to generate news stories. In addition, the public service announcements are broadcast at such times when the unhealthy segment is really not watching."

Instead of smoking prevention or nutritional campaigns organizing a health fair or news conference, they should invest their money to buy cinema screen advertisements on comedies and sports programs, for example. He also says that campaign planners should partner with national organizations, producers, writers, directors and actors to invest in product placement in movies, sitcoms and soap operas. Other target media include video games and entertainment-oriented programming on the Internet.

"This would be quite a change for media portrayals of health, because previous research shows entertainment programming depicting unhealthy eating as normal and desirable without linking it to negative consequences," he says.

"A great example of a health campaign that is breaking from tradition is the anti-drug campaign. Instead of news stories, they use commercials that are catchy, stylish and offer a sense of thrill that targets the adolescent at-risk group. Also, Population Communication International's Soap Summits provide entertainment and health professionals with information and creative ideas regarding the incorporation of health issues into entertainment programs."

The summit is an annual meeting that brings together individuals responsible for the creation of the content of American daytime serials with the goal of heightening awareness in the creative community about its role in shaping attitudes and behaviors.
Writer: Amy Patterson-Neubert, (765) 494-9723,
Source: Mohan Dutta-Bergman, (765) 494-2587,

Related Web site:
Mohan Dutta-Bergman:

Reaching Unhealthy Eaters: Applying a Strategic Approach to Media Vehicle Choice
Mohan J. Dutta-Bergman

Founded upon the argument that unhealthy eaters need to be reached through strategic choices that are driven by adequate formative research, this article examines the media consumption patterns of unhealthy eaters. Based on an analysis of the 1999 Lifestyle data, the article points out that healthy and unhealthy eaters differ systematically in their media choices. While television news is the most effective channel for reaching healthy eaters, television sports and entertainment-oriented Internet are the two major media categories consumed by the unhealthy eater. Also, healthy eaters are more likely to be drawn to print media, suggesting that print-based healthy eating campaigns are unlikely to reach the at-risk group. The article recommends the exploration of alternative entertainment-oriented channels and content strategies to effectively reach the unhealthy eater.


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