Junia Geisler

Photo of Junia Geisler

Vice President
Washington DC
Posts: 11

Specializing in public health issues, Junia brings more than 15 years of health communications, media relations, public affairs, partnership development, and writing experience to Ogilvy Washington’s Social Change Practice.

Her career at Ogilvy has included strategic planning, program development, media relations, and implementation of a wide range of consumer education projects. Her expertise in campaign development and project management includes more than 10 years supporting the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute’s award-winning The Heart Truth® campaign, as well as five years leading the National Institute on Drug Abuse’s media relations contract.

Junia holds a bachelor’s degree in Journalism from the University of Maryland. She lives in Washington, DC.

SNAP Decisions: When Your Local Government-Approved Retailer Is Dennies Liquors

Mar 02

Growing up in a family that relied on government assistance to help us meet our food and nutrition needs, my biggest concern was avoiding the embarrassment that came with pulling out the booklet of paper food stamps in our upper-middle class neighborhood grocery store. As a kid, that embarrassment felt bigger than all the things I’m sure my mom was worrying about: making the food stamps stretch through the month, finding access to healthy foods, and making the best choices for our family.

Even though I couldn’t imagine that anyone I knew used food stamps, there must have been others in our community. The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) is the largest of the 15 domestic nutrition assistance programs administered by USDA’s Food and Nutrition Service. In an average month, the program provides benefits to more than 47 million low-income individuals. On average, households received $275 in SNAP benefits per month (or $133 per person) in 2014.

Many improvements have been made to the food assistance program since my family used food stamps in the 80s: debit cards have replaced paper food stamps, farmers markets accept SNAP payments, and there are incentive programs to encourage healthy choices. But perhaps the biggest improvement is forthcoming—an improvement that provides easier access to healthy food. In August 2017, USDA will launch an online purchasing pilot in seven states that will allow beneficiaries to use their SNAP benefits to make food purchases online through vendors like Amazon and FreshDirect. Eventually, the goal is for this to be a national option for SNAP participants.

Access to healthy food is an important issue that I’ll come back to, but how do participants use their SNAP benefits? The program is intended to cover food purchases, so products like diapers, laundry detergent, and pet food are not covered. Also not covered: alcohol and tobacco. But when it comes to food, there are few, if any, restrictions. It is not a perfect system. A recent USDA report indicates that the top purchases in SNAP households are soft drinks—accounting for 5% of the dollars spent on food. Even though the same report shows that non-SNAP households bought nearly as much soda, USDA has been criticized for not putting restrictions on purchases like soda and foods high in sugar and fat that contribute to the nation’s obesity problem.

Is it appropriate for the government to dictate what people can buy with SNAP funds? This question is a political and moral landmine that has been debated extensively (see coverage in Forbes, Slate, USA Today). A recent New York Times article quotes David Ludwig, the director of the New Balance Foundation Obesity Prevention Center at Boston Children’s Hospital, as saying that the purpose of SNAP is to protect the health and well-being of the nation, not to ensure that poor households have access to sugary drinks.

Whether you agree or disagree, legislation to regulate SNAP purchases has failed to make it through Congress because putting the government in the position of deciding what foods are “good” and which are “bad” would be difficult and costly—and, some believe, unfair to SNAP recipients.

While it may not have banned soda and other junk food, USDA recognizes that it plays a role in helping SNAP participants make better food choices. A May 2015 report issued by the agency—“Diet Quality of Americans by SNAP Participation Status”—highlighted three areas where the program can promote better nutrition:

  • Milk. Across all age groups, SNAP participants are more likely than nonparticipants to consume whole or reduced-fat milk and less likely to consume lowfat or nonfat milk. As such, USDA recognizes that SNAP education programs should encourage participants to replace whole and reduced-fat milk with lowfat or nonfat milk.
  • Fruits and veggies. SNAP participants consume fewer whole fruits and vegetables than nonparticipants. As such, USDA recognizes that SNAP education programs should encourage participants to increase consumption of fruits and vegetables.
  • Soda. SNAP participants are more likely to consume regular sodas than nonparticipants and were less likely to consume sugar-free sodas than nonparticipants. As such, USDA recognizes that SNAP education programs should encourage participants to reduce consumption of regular sodas.


Having a handle on the areas where SNAP can influence food purchasing to be healthier is one thing, but how USDA can get people to actually make those healthy choices is the million-dollar question. For many people, it’s difficult to choose an apple over potato chips, though with enough education they might. But no amount of education will help if the apple isn’t even for sale where you shop.

To explore this, I conducted a quick experiment. Using USDA’s SNAP Retailer Locator I looked up authorized providers in Anacostia, a neighborhood in Southeast DC. The search returned 25 results, including two very questionable stores (Dennies Liquors, Discount Tobacco & Vapor Shop); several that I would classify as moderately acceptable in terms of offering healthy food options (7-Eleven, CVS); and only one full-service grocery store (Shoppers Food Warehouse). Per the USDA’s implications for nutrition promotion, I wonder which of these retailers sell skim milk? Fruits and veggies? I bet they all sell soda!

This raises a lot of questions, but two big ones are: how did some of these retailers get on the list, and how do people who live in this neighborhood get healthy food?

The criteria for becoming a SNAP retailer seem quite reasonable, but even though all SNAP-approved retailers are required to provide at least three out of four staple food groups (including perishable foods in at least two categories), I am curious how USDA monitors compliance.

So what options do residents of Anacostia have when Dennies Liquors is their closest retailer? You might say, “Where there’s a will, there’s a way” but that’s probably your privilege talking. According to USDA research, the average straight-line distance to the nearest supermarket is 2.1 miles. I know I’m incredibly fortunate because there are three grocery stores within three blocks of my apartment, including an organic market. I also have the means to order food online, including a twice-monthly fruits and veggies delivery.

People who live in food deserts have difficulty obtaining nutritious food due to availability, affordability, distance, or the number of grocery stores in the area. From Big Think’s “Urban Food Deserts and Washington, D.C.”:

Healthful food is scarce in Washington’s inner city. Much of the food comes from corner markets and various take-out and fast food restaurants. The National Academy of Sciences reported last year that within food deserts, families typically shop at convenience stores overflowing with high-fat snacks, soda, alcohol and cigarettes, which are marked up in price. Based on these results, connections can also be made with increased health risk; the highest levels of obesity exist within the city’s two Wards east of the Anacostia, where poverty is greatest and access to grocery stores is the worst.

This describes countless cities across the U.S., and many rural settings don’t fare any better. Access to healthy foods is a major issue.

USDA’s new online purchasing pilot program isn’t a silver bullet, but it is a big step in the right direction—giving people the ability to make better choices that don’t rely on the selection at their local corner store. And more can be done. For example, USDA could evaluate the interim results of the pilot program before the end of the two-year term and consider expanding beyond the initial seven states and seven approved retailers. They could also access data about which types of food are purchased through the pilot to better understand and inform future education efforts. For brick and mortar retailers, especially corner stores in food deserts, USDA can support local nonprofits and charities—such as DC Central Kitchen’s Healthy Corners program—to ensure a supply of fruits and vegetables.

My embarrassment over being on food stamps as a kid faded long ago, but what remains is a life-long interest in policies and education efforts that help ensure that families—especially kids—are able to make healthy choices with as few barriers as possible. I look forward to seeing if, and hopefully how, expanded access to healthy food choices paves the way for SNAP beneficiaries to actually make those choices.

What Drives Voting? Social Media Is the New Sticker

Oct 20

Last week, a Fast Company headline caught my eye – “The Surprising Genius of the ‘I Voted’ Sticker.” In the article, the author refers to a “simpler time” in the 1980s when the stickers were first introduced and explains the basic power of the sticker: social pressure. Many of us vote so that we can tell the world that we did; in turn, our peers feel pressured to vote. IMO, it’s the best use of stickers yet (save for all those scratch-and-sniffs in my elementary school sticker album!).

I Voted Sticker

There’s a theory to explain this—one that we use all the time as social marketers. It’s called the Social Learning Theory. Associated with psychologist Albert Bandura’s work in the 1960s, social learning theory explains how people learn new behaviors, values, and attitudes. He posits that behavior is regulated by its consequences, but only as those consequences are interpreted and understood by the individual. The outcome may be improved health status, physical appearance, economic gain, or some other perceived benefit.

In Ogilvy’s Social Change group, we often use this theory as the foundation for campaigns that are at the heart of our mission: to improve lives and effect change.

I write about this not to bore you with fancy theories, but rather to get to the heart of how we do what we do. The word “theory” often scares people, but the social learning theory is pretty straightforward and accessible. Sometimes affecting behavior is as simple as the peer pressure that results from a sticker.

Here’s an example of another type of social learning. In 2013, Ogilvy Washington created an award-winning campaign for the National Association of Broadcasters that chipped away at the stigma surrounding mental illness by creating an online community where teens and young adults struggling with mental health problems could open up and share their personal stories of recovery, tragedy, struggle, and hope. OK2TALK.org was a safe place where teens took cues from their peers on positive and productive ways to live with and get help for mental health problems. As a result, there was a 7% increase in calls to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (promoted prominently on OK2TALK.org) in July/August 2013 compared to 2012—approximately 13,000 calls.

Celebrities can also play a powerful role when it comes to social learning. In 2011, popstar Demi Lovato announced that she was living with depression and bipolar disorder. Since then, Lovato has partnered with the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Administration (SAMHSA) and other groups to encourage teens to step out of the shadows, be vocal about their struggles, and get the help they need. Like OK2TALK, this is social learning theory in action: when people can identify with a recognizable peer, they have a greater sense of self-efficacy and then imitate the actions to learn the proper preventions and actions.

This is not to say that a celebrity spokesperson is the answer for every campaign, or that social learning theory is the best theory on which to base your campaign. From Stages of Change to the Diffusion of Innovation theory, there are many other useful theories we use as social marketers to reach and engage audiences, and sustain our connection with them.

But back to voting. As we (mercifully) count down the final days of this presidential election season, it’s worth talking about the evolution of the “I Voted” sticker. While many of us will still wear our “I Voted” stickers with pride on Election Day, a new badge of honor pervades. This isn’t breaking news, but social media has become a very powerful channel for social learning: Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, Twitter, etc. In fact, these may be the most important channels for influencing behavior today.

Last week, The New York Times reported on Facebook’s role in driving voter registration. With a four-day Facebook promotion in September, registrations rose drastically on the first day of the campaign compared with the day before, as reported by nine states.

From the Times: “In California, 123,279 people registered to vote or updated their registrations on Friday, Sept. 23, the first day that Facebook users were presented with the reminder. That was the fourth-highest daily total in the history of the state’s online registration site.”

So where does social learning theory come into play? Next to the voter registration reminder, Facebook included a button that allowed users to share the fact that they had registered. The same thing happens on Election Day—Facebook encourages you to share your “I Voted” message. This virtual sticker has the ability to be seen by my hundreds of Facebook friends—far more people than would physically see me and my “I Voted” sticker.

So here’s the bottom line: It’s just the same as it always was. Peer pressure works. But now our circle of influence is much, much larger. Use it for good, people. Vote, and when you do, wear and share your sticker.

Wanted: Blood, Urine, and a Soil Sample from Your Yard

Oct 03

The Precision Medicine Initiative is a bold new research effort to revolutionize how we improve health and treat disease.

The Precision Medicine Initiative is a bold new research effort to revolutionize how we improve health and treat disease.

What would it take to get you to participate in a government study in which you and 999,999 other people committed to providing personal health data and blood and urine samples for at least 10 years?

This summer, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) announced $55 million in awards to build the foundation and infrastructure needed to launch the Cohort Program of President Obama’s Precision Medicine Initiative (PMI). The PMI Cohort Program is a landmark longitudinal research effort that aims to engage 1 million U.S. participants to improve our ability to prevent and treat disease based on individual differences in lifestyle, environment, and genetics.

No other government study of its kind comes close to recruiting this many participants. For comparison, the government’s well-known, population-based Framingham Heart Study has enrolled 15,447 participants since it started in 1948. The PMI Cohort Program aims to recruit 79,000 participants in its first year.

A recent NIH survey showed that 54% of respondents would definitely or probably participate in the PMI Cohort Program if asked. While 79% of respondents supported the study, the two groups who were less inclined to participate were those with fewer years of education and those ages 60 and above.

The promise of precision medicine has grown as Americans are engaging in improving their health and participating in health research more than ever before, electronic health records have been widely adopted, genomic analysis costs have dropped significantly, data science has become increasingly sophisticated, and health technologies have become mobile.

Although official recruitment for the program is not yet underway, NIH is using several key messages to encourage participation:

#1 – Precision medicine is an emerging approach for disease treatment and prevention that takes into account individual variability in genes, environment, and lifestyle for each person. Doctors could eventually use the PMI Cohort Program data to shape treatment for an individual patient, rather than using standard treatments that may not work for everyone.

#2 – Anyone living in the U.S. will be able to participate in the PMI Cohort Program. Volunteers will be asked to share data including information from their electronic health records and health questionnaires. Participants will also undergo a standard baseline physical evaluation and provide blood and urine samples. Participants may be asked to provide health data on lifestyle habits and environmental exposures as well, from activity-tracking devices like Fitbit.

#3 – A foundation of diverse partners will ensure that the cohort is representative of our country’s diversity. NIH has selected four regional medical centers, six Federally Qualified Health Centers, and the VA as initial partners—improving the ability to reach large numbers of potential volunteers, which contributes to the overall diversity of the participants and regions reached by this phase of the program.

#4 – Personal health information won’t be held behind a veil of secrecy… Patients will have access to their own data so they can participate fully in decisions about their health that affect them. Officials say they want patients to be partners in the research, not just “human subjects.” To that end, patients will have access to all the information about themselves, including laboratory and genetic test results.

#5 – But it will be protected! Maintaining data security and privacy will be paramount to maintaining participants’ trust and engagement. The program will engage teams of privacy experts and employ rigorous security testing models, develop participant education with regard to privacy and potential re-identification risk, and clearly articulate response plans in the case of a privacy breach.

As NIH moves forward with the rollout of the PMI Cohort Program, I look forward to following how they manage a variety of related communications considerations:

  • Research to understand participant motivators. Will people respond best to messaging that puts them at the center of advancing medicine? Will they be driven by the opportunity to save others’ lives or improve their own condition? Answers to these types of questions will aide in developing clear, audience-based messages and materials.
  • Channel strategy. To recruit 1 million people, NIH is going to have to get creative about how it reaches people, while at the same time respecting the boundaries of IRB. The importance of an online presence goes without saying, but how will NIH use new and emerging social platforms for communications efforts? What channels will reach less educated and older Americans?
  • Crisis communications. Security breaches. Unexpected negative findings. When crisis hits—as it inevitably does—how will NIH respond? By having crisis-planning templates and checklists “at the ready,” NIH will be steps ahead in a crisis situation.
  • Media relations. A government program of this size will draw a significant amount of media interest. How can NIH recognize and take advantage of the media’s interest? What strategies will NIH use to maximize the reach of program results?


The PMI will enable a new era of medicine in which researchers, providers, and patients work together to develop individualized care. But its success depends on how NIH uses communications to recruit and retain participants, the strength and scope of the participant pool—and ultimately, how the data trove is used.

How the World Wins When Presidents Survive Disease

Sep 15

As Barack Obama’s presidency comes to an end, there’s a lot of discussion about legacy and predictions about how he’ll be remembered. It has me thinking about how we remember the other men who have held that high office. Those who are considered our top presidents have profound epitaphs, but their contributions to public health barely make it onto their Wikipedia pages.

Mount Rushmore

What if more U.S. presidents were remembered for their contributions to public health?

Our first president, George Washington, was the incredibly skilled commander of the Continental Army, he was the first to sign the U.S. Constitution, and he was unanimously elected president in the country’s first two elections.

Well before all of that, when Washington was 19 years old, he contracted smallpox. He survived the disease, which killed 1 of 3 people who were infected, and lived with its characteristic facial scarring for the rest of his life.

Whatever lessons Washington may have learned from this experience, perhaps the most valuable was the lesson that because he had been infected with and survived smallpox, he wouldn’t be at risk of getting it in the future. He was immune, like all the others who had survived the disease.

He had to act on that lesson as a military leader. The formation of the Continental Army itself was the first time that so many men from across the colonies came together in one place (since people didn’t usually travel much then), so it was a natural breeding ground for disease. In some ways, it was the first, albeit accidental, laboratory for public health in the U.S.

Whenever there was an outbreak or a situation in which smallpox might be a factor, Washington would send in soldiers that had already endured the disease to avoid an outbreak among his troops. It was an effective strategy, but Washington knew that variolation (a method of immunizing with a mild form of the disease) was far better—especially as it was believed that the British were using smallpox as a form of biological warfare.

There was a lot of skepticism and objection to the practice of vaccination in Washington’s day. But he pressed forward, saying: “Necessity not only authorizes but seems to require the measure, for should the disorder infect the Army . . . we should have more to dread from it, than from the Sword of the Enemy.”

Washington had to resist the desire to inoculate all the troops at once because he knew that he couldn’t survive the war with all of his men sidelined for the month necessary to recuperate. Instead, he instituted a controversial system where new recruits would be inoculated with smallpox immediately upon enlistment. As a result, soldiers would contract the milder form of the disease at the same time that they were being outfitted with uniforms and weapons. Soldiers would consequently be completely healed, inoculated, and supplied by the time they left to join the army.

By the end of 1777, nearly 40,000 troops had been inoculated, and the smallpox infection rate among soldiers dropped from 17 to one percent. Washington showed the soldiers and people of his time that the best way to avoid diseases like smallpox was vaccination.

It took more than 200 years after Washington’s contributions, but in 1979 the World Health Organization (WHO) declared the global eradication of smallpox. It is one of only two infectious diseases that has been eradicated globally—the other is rinderpest, a cattle-borne disease eradicated in 2011.

Nearly 150 years after Washington was in office, Franklin Delano Roosevelt established his own legacy: he ended Prohibition, pulled the country out of the Great Depression, and bolstered Allied Forces during World War II.

FDR also had polio, which he contracted at age 39 in 1921.

As president, FDR founded the organization that eventually became the March of Dimes. Donations to the March of Dimes funded research seeking a cure for the disease and laid the foundation for Jonas Salk’s successful development and implementation of a vaccine against the virus in 1952. Polio was declared eradicated in the United States in 1979.

Despite this success, polio still hasn’t achieved worldwide elimination. Learning that there were less than 100 cases diagnosed in 2015 might lead you to believe that worldwide eradication is imminent. Frustratingly, it’s not. In a 2011 New York Times article, Don McNeil reported: “Although caseloads are down more than 99 percent since the [global eradication] campaign began in 1985, getting rid of the last 1 percent has been like trying to squeeze Jell-O to death. As the vaccination fist closes in one country, the virus bursts out in another.”

The good news is that we have the diagnostic tools to detect polio and an effective intervention (a vaccine), so in theory it’s possible to eradicate the disease. India is the latest country to have officially stopped transmission of polio—with its last reported case in 2011. Only three countries remain where the disease is endemic—Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Nigeria.

So while we’re inundated with stories of email servers and 50 ft. walls this election season, a more important topic of conversation is what type of public health legacy our next president has the opportunity to leave. The reality is that a president doesn’t have to survive disease for the world to win. When our next president leaves office, polio or another disease could be eradicated. I think it’s a worthy and achievable goal.

Lesson on Infographics from John Snow (no, not that Jon Snow)

Jan 12

Data visualization. Information architecture. Infographic.

These are buzz words in the modern communications environment where the ability to show processes, statistics, and messages in a visually pleasing way has become communications gold. The growth of communications platforms like Facebook and Twitter has driven the value of graphic content, including infographics, which can be shared with the click of a button.

But what makes a good infographic?

In his 1983 book The Visual Display of Quantitative Information, data visualization pioneer Edward Tufte says that ‘graphical displays’ should:

  • Show the data;
  • Induce the viewer to think about the substance rather than about methodology, graphic design, the technology of graphic production, or something else;
  • Avoid distorting what the data have to say;
  • Present many numbers in a small space;
  • Make large data sets coherent;
  • Encourage the eye to compare different pieces of data;
  • Reveal the data at several levels of detail, from a broad overview to the fine structure;
  • Serve a reasonably clear purpose: description, exploration, tabulation, or decoration; and
  • Be closely integrated with the statistical and verbal descriptions of a data set.


He also claims that: Graphics reveal data. That’s an important point.

I’ve always appreciated the power of a good infographic, but during a recent trip to London I got a fortuitous lesson on the history of the tool when I was introduced to John Snow.

Way back in the 1850s (when, forget Facebook, the first transatlantic telegraph cable was laid), Snow was a skeptic of the then-dominant theory that diseases such as cholera and bubonic plague were caused by pollution or “bad air.” The germ theory of disease had not yet been developed, so Snow did not understand the mechanism by which the disease was transmitted. He first publicized his theory in an 1849 essay, On the Mode of Communication of Cholera, followed by a more detailed treatise in 1855 incorporating the results of his investigation of the role of the water supply in the Soho epidemic of 1854.

By talking to local residents, he identified the source of the outbreak as the public water pump on Broad Street (now Broadwick Street). Although Snow’s examination of a water sample from the Broad Street pump did not conclusively prove its danger, his studies of the pattern of the disease were convincing enough to persuade local officials to disable the well pump by removing its handle. This action has been commonly credited as ending the outbreak.

Snow later used a dot map to illustrate the cluster of cholera cases around the pump. He also used statistics to illustrate the connection between the quality of the water source and cholera cases—showing that the Southwark and Vauxhall Waterworks Company was taking water from sewage-polluted sections of the Thames and delivering the water to homes, leading to an increased incidence of cholera. Snow’s study was a major event in the history of public health and geography. It is regarded as the founding event of the science of epidemiology.

Cool, huh?

Original map by John Snow showing the clusters of cholera cases in the London epidemic of 1854.

Original map by John Snow showing the clusters of cholera cases in the London epidemic of 1854.

Snow’s Soho infographic was simple, but brilliant. By plotting cholera deaths by household, as well as the location of the water pumps, it truly revealed the data that pinpointed the source of that cholera outbreak and identified the sewage-polluted water system as the carrier of the disease.

What else made it a good infographic? Well, by Tufte’s standards, it encouraged the eye to compare different pieces of data (volume and location of cholera deaths vis-à-vis the local water pumps). Though the map doesn’t convey the population of the area, it does show that the largest cluster of deaths was closest to the Broad Street Pump—and as you get further and further away from the pump, deaths were less frequent. In part as a result of this map, when the next big cholera epidemic threatened London, authorities acknowledged that water was the problem and told residents to boil their water. And that was the last cholera outbreak to hit London.

As a communications professional, I’ve helped produce my fair share of infographics for clients. I’ve seen plenty of excellent ones that tick off most or all of Tufte’s criteria. (Check out a few of the latest recognized in The Best American Infographics 2015, featured on Popular Science.) But I’ve also seen some bad infographics. I won’t call any out here, but these examples generally forsake the data for creativity or vice versa.

For me, Tufte’s guidelines and Snow’s work reinforce the importance of the Ogilvy twin peaks of creativity and effectiveness—a driving philosophy that we strive for creativity in the unique ways in which we help our clients solve their problems while, at the same time, focus relentlessly on our effectiveness so we have undeniable proof that our creativity makes a meaningful difference.

Not every infographic is going to save lives, but we should remember that they indeed can.

London, January 2016. Outside the John Snow pub with the plaque recognizing the location of the Broad Street Pump and John Snow’s discovery of in 1854 that cholera is conveyed by water.

London, January 2016. Outside the John Snow pub with the plaque recognizing the location of the Broad Street Pump and John Snow’s discovery in 1854 that cholera is conveyed by water.

Please note: I borrowed liberally from Wikipedia for the background on John Snow and the Soho cholera outbreak.

You Are What You Tweet

Aug 13

‘Slice of life’ tweets have been some of the most scorned content on the Internet. Who really cares if you’re frying up grass-fed bacon by the pound or binge watching the latest season of House of Cards from your couch? Most of us consider this the custard-like filling of the Twittersphere—lots of calories, little substance.

However, by virtue of sheer volume, these very tweets may be useful for tracking and forecasting health-related behavior if the data can be extracted in an accurate and efficient manner. Increasingly, ‘big data’ innovators are harvesting the 200 billion tweets posted each year to help inform and influence public health efforts in a growing field known as computational health science.

Take the Lexicocalorimeter for example. Researchers at the University of Vermont developed this online, interactive tool to measure the caloric intake and output of Twitter posts by building an extensive list of foods and activities and assigning each a number of calories. The rough ratios of these measures are presented by state to establish a real-time ranking of caloric balance.

Generated by the Lexicocalorimeter, the maps below show which food and activity was most significant for each state at a given point in time. For example, “tomatoes” and “dancing” lead in California while “cake” and “eating” are most popular in Mississippi, the most obese state in the nation. Turns out the tool’s caloric balance data strongly correlates with health stats reported by the CDC’s Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System—the gold standard of behavioral surveillance.

Lexicocalorimeter image

There also have been a number of efforts to use social media to track and predict the magnitude and progress of the flu. During the 2012-2013 flu season, scientists from Johns Hopkins University and George Washington University developed a Twitter tracking system that was 93 percent accurate when compared to national flu data collected by CDC (“National and Local Influenza Surveillance through Twitter: An Analysis of the 2012-2013 Influenza Epidemic”).

Flu twitter graphic

To achieve this level of accuracy, researchers had to create an algorithm that would separate chatter from useful information. For example, one problem with mining Twitter to determine flu incidence is that people aren’t just using the platform to discuss their own exposure or symptoms, but also to discuss the flu in general (especially after relevant news coverage). There are also thousands of tweets that need to be weeded out even though they include relevant terms (e.g., “Bieber fever” or “the cost of gas makes me sick”).

While there are opportunities and challenges to consider, both of these examples indicate that Twitter has the power to track and predict public health issues.

Benefits and Challenges chart

Benefits and challenges associated with using Twitter to inform public health efforts.

We must consider how we can use this information as health communications professionals. For the most part, my day-to-day interaction with Twitter revolves around the content that clients can push out and less on how they can listen and learn from what others are posting. But clearly there is a lot to learn and act upon if we spend more time harnessing the power of Twitter.

To start, we should use this type of data to inform awareness, education, and behavior change efforts by better understanding when and why people are collectively talking about particular public health topics or activities. With insights gleaned from tools like the Lexicocalorimeter, we can design education and outreach efforts with tailored, state-specific health messages; with flu data, we can predict where and when illnesses will spread, providing public health systems with advanced warnings and more time to pull together necessary resources.

Twitter data can also be used to identify misperceptions around health issues, therefore, informing what audiences to target with communications efforts. The Hopkins analysis of flu-related tweets found that a significant number of people were taking antibiotics to treat flu symptoms; however, we know that antibiotics don’t treat the flu, which is a virus. This valuable insight should be used to help inform messaging for flu experts interacting with the media and future antibiotic misuse campaigns.

As communications professionals, we must be nimble, efficient, and constantly innovating to create and refine our outreach strategies. I look forward to following this growing trend as we continue to realize the power of Twitter’s collective voice—even all the content ‘junk food’ that inspires more than the occasional eye roll on my part. Maybe I’ll have more tolerance for it now!

Could a rebranding campaign have saved Swampoodle?

Feb 19


A rare breed of dog? Try again.

A trendy new restaurant serving swampy noodles? Nope.

I discovered Swampoodle one evening while consulting Google Maps. There in big letters just north of Union Station – “Swampoodle.” It turns out Swampoodle was a neighborhood of Irish immigrants that developed in DC in the second half of the 19th century.  The moniker can be attributed to the numerous swamps and puddles that resulted in the neighborhood when the nearby Tiber Creek overflowed. Swampoodle saw its demise in the early 20th century with the construction of Union Station.

I’ll just put it out there: Swampoodle is a horrible name for a neighborhood. Nothing about it evokes pride or possibility. In fact, according to Wikipedia, it had a “reputation for being a lawless shantytown, where crime, prostitution, and drunkenness were rife.”

(Side note: Why Google Maps includes a neighborhood that disappeared nearly 100 years before the technology was created should be the subject of another blog post.)

Could a rebranding campaign have saved Swampoodle? With a revamped identity, could the residents of Swampoodle—or any modern American neighborhood—have gained a fresh perspective on their surroundings and thus themselves? A new name, slogan, or logo alone can’t restore a neighborhood or community, but they may just provide a rallying point to attract and mobilize change.

Urban rebranding is often driven by economic forces like tourism and real estate, which require a city or neighborhood to distance itself from an older, negative reputation to increase prestige. But there is also opportunity for branding to influence the culture of a neighborhood or city to change behaviors that positively affect morbidity and mortality, the environment, crime rates, etc.

The “I <3 NY” campaign (reviewed in a January 2013 GOOD blog post written by Lee-Sean Huang) is a great example of how branding can positively affect a city:

Milton Glaser’s famous “I Love New York” logo launched in 1977, a time when New York City was nearly bankrupt, business was suffering (or leaving), and crime was rampant. Glaser created the logo pro bono for the NY State Department of Commerce to promote tourism. Since the logo launched it has helped attract millions of tourists a year to the state and generates over $30 million a year in merchandise royalties. New York has also become the safest big city in America.

While branding can help attract tourism or investment, the impact of Glaser’s “I Love New York” was not merely economic, but also cultural. The campaign helped change New Yorkers’ perceptions of their city by focusing on the positive during a challenging time to spark a sense of pride and ownership, which in turn, translated into the political will to take action. Robert McGuire, police commissioner for NYC from 1978 to 1983, explained, “You don’t think of a logo as a catalyst for the restoration of a city, but in many ways, without that slogan, the turnaround in New York’s fortunes wouldn’t have been achieved so quickly.”

Today, the neighborhood formerly known as Swampoodle goes by “NoMa” (which stands for “North of Massachusetts Avenue”) and is one of the city’s fastest growing neighborhoods. It is not the most creative name, but following in the footsteps of neighborhoods like New York’s Soho and Tribeca, it certainly has a nicer ring to it than Swampoodle.

What regions, cities, or neighborhoods do you think could benefit from rebranding? Share your ideas or examples of successful rebranding efforts in the comments below.

Also, if you want to read more about Swampoodle’s colorful history, check out this entry from Ghosts of DC, which includes an excerpt from a Washington Post article about some of the neighborhood miscreants.

Faith: A Foolish Notion, or Something You’ve Got To Have?

Oct 24

faith noun \ˈfāth\
: strong belief or trust in someone or something
: belief in the existence of God : strong religious feelings or beliefs
: a system of religious beliefs

Sitting in the pews of the historic sanctuary at Sixth & I last week, it shouldn’t have surprised me that the concept of faith played so prominently in Malcolm Gladwell’s talk about his new book David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants. Heck, the title of the book references one of the bible’s most well-known stories.

But I was surprised. The way I understood it, the book explores the struggle of underdogs vs. favorites and the notion that adversity can be an advantage in disguise. Fascinating. But faith? How did that fit in? Within the first five minutes, Gladwell offered his theory on the science of success, declaring that faith and the spirit of the Lord are critical to the triumph of any “David.” And without these key components, one cannot overcome “Goliath.”

This is uncomfortable territory for me. Religion and faith did not play a prominent role in my upbringing. In the age-old science vs. faith debate, I’m squarely in science’s corner. For some I realize that a belief in science and faith are not necessarily mutually exclusive, so I was curious. Admittedly, I have always been intrigued by people who, after overcoming a particularly rough time, can say “my faith got me through it,” or in the eloquent wisdom of Martin Luther King, Jr., “Faith is taking the first step even when you don’t see the whole staircase.”

Lovely words, but I wanted to see the proverbial staircase before I took that first step. And I was hoping that Gladwell’s remarkable ability to deconstruct complex psychological and sociological phenomena through powerful storytelling would somehow make the concept of faith more accessible to me (now that he had brought it up).

Gladwell called out two stories in his book as shining examples of faith’s essential role in overcoming the odds to achieve greatness. He explained that the people in these stories were able to perform acts of courage because they came from godly traditions. Read the rest of this entry »

Happiness is Coming: Revisiting the Campaign that Defeated Pinochet

Apr 04

In 1988, after 15 years of military dictatorship in Chile, the public voted in a national plebiscite to determine whether Augusto Pinochet should stay in power or whether there should be an open presidential election.

The story of how both sides—particularly the “NO” campaign (which was led by the Opposition and favored democracy)—used advertising campaigns to advance their cause is the subject of the Oscar-nominated film NO, starring Gael Garcia Bernal. Garcia Bernal plays the ad exec behind the Opposition’s colorful and cheerful campaign, “Happiness is coming,” which forgoes fear-based imagery and messaging depicting military-fueled violence, imprisonment, exile, and “disappearances” in favor of rainbows and upbeat images of joyful, exuberant people freed from dictatorship.

After the 27-day campaign, during which each party had 15 minutes of nightly television ads to present its side, the “NO” option won with nearly 60% of the votes. Not only was Pinochet defeated, an unprecedented 97% of registered voters turned out at the polls.

The film brings to light an issue that social marketers grapple with every day. How do we create break-through communications that raise awareness AND prompt behavior change? Did the Opposition win in 1988 because they avoided the negative and instead promised a better and nicer future? Are campaigns like the CDC’s hard-hitting “Tips from Former Smokers” the way to go (more on the use of fear in Social Marketing here)? Or are humor-based approaches like “Avoid the Stork” (recently profiled on this blog) more effective?

Researchers have studied the effect of scare tactics and found mixed results—some find that fear influences behavior, others do not. It depends on whether the audience perceives a threat to their health or well-being and how they react to that threat. When faced with scare tactics in health-related communications, some people will commit (or re-commit) to healthy behaviors. Others will reject the message and deny that a current behavior is dangerous or fail to take serious, adverse outcomes personally. Some may dismiss messages that poke fun, try too hard, or are over the top.

This is a complex issue. There are a myriad of individual, interpersonal, social, and cultural factors that uniquely influence each of us, and there is no silver bullet. So we rely on theoretical models, audience research, message testing, and careful planning to create “surround sound” campaigns that try to fill the gaps through partnerships, media relations, and other tactics. Sometimes we get lucky, and a big idea sticks. Often, it’s the simplest ones, like “Happiness is coming.”

PS – Check out the film. It’s shot on a retro U-matic video camera to match the look of the period, and there are acid-washed jeans, rat tails, and skateboards to transport you right back to the 80s.

Sugar: The next public health crisis?

Apr 04

Having worked in Ogilvy’s Social Marketing Practice for almost 12 years on campaigns that address public health issues like heart disease, cancer, and addiction, I was intrigued by the recent 60 Minutes piece “Is Sugar Toxic?” that made connections between the sweet substance and each of these issues.

The highlights for me included:

  • Sanjay Gupta’s interview with Dr. Richard Lustig, an endocrinologist, who gives an evolutionary explanation for our sugar cravings, saying “there is no food stuff on the planet that has fructose that is poisonous to you.  It is all good.  So when you taste something that’s sweet, it’s an evolutionary Darwinian signal that this is a safe food.”  To which Gupta replies:  “We were born this way?”  Lustig:  “We were born this way.”  Cue Lady Gaga.
  • Kimber Stanhope’s research linking sugar consumption to an increase in risk factors for heart disease and stroke, which I thought was the most compelling piece of the segment.  She’s in the middle of a five-year study with results that already show that consuming sugar increases our LDL (“bad”) cholesterol, which in turn increases our risk for heart disease.
  • Sugar activates areas in our brains like cocaine does.  Says neuroscientist Eric Stice:  “If you overeat sugary foods on a regular basis, it causes changes in the brain that basically it blunts your reward region response to the food, so then you eat more and more to achieve the same satisfaction you felt originally.”  Now this I believe.  Just try “quitting” sugar, and you’ll undoubtedly experience some of the same withdrawal symptoms drug addicts face.

As the piece ended, I couldn’t help but picture the scene from “Thank You for Smoking” where the M.O.D. Squad (the “Merchants of Death” representing the tobacco, alcohol, and firearms industries) sit in a darkened corner of what I always imagined was Old Ebbitt Grill.  Does the sugar industry belong at the table too?  I think the science is fascinating, and it certainly makes me want to cut back on my own sugar consumption—but just like I can’t imagine life without a glass of wine every once in a while, I can’t imagine it without a grilled cheese on (gasp, sugar-laden) white bread or (double gasp) a cupcake.  I guess you could say that I’m a proponent of the “everything in moderation” mentality.

That doesn’t mean there isn’t a place for awareness and education—especially for the average American who consumes 130 pounds of sugar per person each year.  Lustig’s parting statement:  “Ultimately, this is a public health crisis.  And when it’s a public health crisis, you have to do big things, and you have to do them across the board.”  What do you think he means, and do you agree?

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