CFA Faculty Recital on Thursday, January 31,
at 8 p.m., at the Tsai Performance Center
Week of 25 January 2002 · Vol. V, No. 20


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Turning the tables on tobacco
Students adopt mass persuasion techniques to promote good health

By David J. Craig

U.S. tobacco companies spent $22.5 million a day promoting cigarettes in 1999, more than most states spent all year on antismoking efforts.


This 30-second television spot promoting condom use was written, directed, and produced by School of Public Health graduate students for just $4,000 and will be shown on regional cable stations.


Public health officials cannot hope to match the industry dollar-for-dollar in persuading young people to forgo the habit, but according to Michael Siegel, a School of Public Health associate professor of social and behavioral sciences, they don't have to. He says, however, for public health campaigns to be effective they must use the same mass media techniques that made smoking a multibillion-dollar industry in the United States.

That's why Siegel and Ed Carfano, an SPH lecturer and film producer who has created some of the most recognizable public health television spots of the past 40 years, each semester teach graduate students to produce television commercials promoting healthful living as part of their course Mass Communications and Public Health.

"Schools of public health traditionally have trained students in individual education methods, such as going into schools and telling people what behaviors are good or bad for them, but researchers are finding that that doesn't work very well," says Siegel, who studies the impact of antismoking advertising on teen smoking. "The basic premise of our course is that we in public health have to use the power of mass communication to encourage healthy behavior because we know the mass media are a powerful influence to get people to do unhealthy things."

So together students, most of whom enter the course with no film or video production experience, write, cast, direct, and produce a 30-second television spot on a public health issue of their choice. Pros are brought in to do the technical parts, such as operating cameras and editing equipment. Amateur actors typically handle the roles. But all conceptual decisions, from choosing camera angles to arranging lights to making the final edits, are left to the students, who also write press releases, design a brochure, and compile literature for a press kit they mail to media outlets with a videotape of the ad.

Each of the two commercials produced every semester is made on a meager $4,000 budget. That means that almost any type of special effect, including animation and computerized visuals, is out of the question.

The key to making a successful spot, says Carfano, is delivering the message in a way that does not condescend or preach to the audience, but suggests subtly the rewards of choosing a healthful lifestyle. Traditional public health campaigns that use scare tactics, for instance, or heavy-handed lectures telling teens to stay off drugs don't do the trick, he says, "because it sounds like it's coming from an authority figure, and teenagers naturally will rebel."
A more effective strategy is used in one of the two spots the class created last semester, where a teenager is shown having a nightmare with menacing authority figures warning him to abstain from sex. He awakens, sees a condom on his nightstand, and falls back asleep, smiling. "It's a positive tilt," Carfano says.

"Even commercials that promote condom use," adds Siegel, "often will warn viewers that they have to use a condom every time they have sex, and that kind of absolute message can be paralyzing to people who have already failed to use a condom. We encourage students to create messages that empower people and make them feel that they have control over their lives."

Kari Mathis (SPH'02) was among a group of students in last semester's course who produced a television spot encouraging blood donation, particularly following September 11. In it, a young child is discussing fictional superheroes with her playmates when she announces that her mother is a hero because she gives blood. Both the blood donation and the condom commercial will air on regional cable stations in the upcoming months.

"The hardest part of the process was bringing together the ideas of everybody in the group, because we were very diverse and had people from all over the world," she says. "But I think we got our message across in an interesting and creative way."

Students leaving the course, says Siegel, are prepared to help coordinate a television campaign for a public health agency -- hiring the appropriate technicians, directors, and producers and guiding them toward the product that the agency has in mind.

"In the last 10 years, there's been a huge increase in the use of mass media in public health campaigns, and our students need to be able to design and develop a solid campaign strategy that uses these tools," he says. "The idea is not that they will end up doing the actual production, but that they'll know what the options are and what guidance to give the agencies that they'd end up working with on such a project. Now, by using the same power of mass media as corporations that promote unhealthful behavior, they can start fighting fire with fire."


25 January 2002
Boston University
Office of University Relations