Learning How to Steal

By Mike Mackert

Working in any field that requires creativity – whether it be advertising or health communication – it can be hard for students to realize that every single thing they do doesn’t have to be entirely original to be successful. Indeed, that will rarely be the case.

To that end, I often use an icebreaker on the first day of my advertising classes called 30 Circles. The Faculty Innovation Center has a full description of the exercise here. The primary takeaway of the exercise is that it’s crucial to learn how to steal (or borrow or remix or appropriate…) others’ ideas to create new and exciting things in the world. It helps students think about their work in a different way and can lead them to better work.

In the context of health communication, one of my favorite research projects involved this kind of appropriation. We were interested in promoting multivitamins to Hispanic adolescent females as an approach to increase their folic acid consumption, which is important for prenatal health. Given that approximately half of all pregnancies are unplanned, promoting multivitamins to a wider audience was a novel way to pursue the end goal of prenatal health promotion. We ended up settling on a campaign that hit a lot of similar notes as Gardasil’s original “One Less” HPV vaccination campaign, and our pilot testing showed a lot of potential for the campaign which focused on broad benefits of a multivitamin and didn’t focus on the prenatal benefits of folic acid.

(If you’re interested in our work on that campaign, you can find the article for free here and there’s a chapter dedicated to it in Designing Effective Health Messages.)

I use our work on that campaign as an example of why it’s important for those working in health communication and public health to study and think about what direct-to-consumer (DTC) prescription drug advertising campaigns do so well. If we can take the approaches of those ads that can have a great impact (narratives, emotional benefits, etc.) and apply that to other areas of health communication we might create more effective campaigns.