Celebrity advice in child health is parenting for dummies.

As someone who has been involved with running marketing campaigns to encourage moms and dads and significant others to vaccinate their children, I am stunned that the anti-vaccine movement is still very strong and causing major health problems that can easily be avoided. So with the recent outbreak of diseases which we in the public health field thought were eliminated, they are starting to appear again and it is not only quite frightening but frustrating.

There are many reasons for the re-occurrence of communicable diseases and some of it can be attributed to the anti-vaccine movement led by Hollywood celebrities.

It’s a shame there is no vaccine or cure for ignorance.

An outbreak of measles hit Toronto this week with four reported cases. South of the border, the highly contagious virus has recently infected more than 100 people in 14 states. On this continent, measles was once considered a disease of the past. It was eradicated in the United States 15 years ago. Even before that time, “measles” had started to sound as anachronistic as smallpox or rinderpest.

A recent article in the Toronto Star got me thinking. How can I as a social marketer win the minds of parents and guardians of children when I am up against celebrities such as Jenny McCarthy, Kristin Cavallari, Bill Maher, Mayim Bialik, Alicia Silverstone, Rob Schneider, Donald Trump and Jim Carrey, to name just a few, who are delivering anti vaccine messages

Specifically Jenny McCarthy, a former Playboy model turned pop immunologist, has made it her mission to connect autism and childhood vaccinations. There is no medical evidence to back this connection, of course. This is a mission powered by junk science, anecdotal tales, gut feelings and widely debunked studies. But of course in Hollywood, facts are always the least of it.

While Ms. McCarthy is in a class by herself as a reprehensible mouthpiece for the anti-vaccine crowd, others have also picked up rhetorical firearms in the depressing war on science. This includes suggesting

• Vaccines are causally linked to autism (Trump, Carrey),
• Vaccines should not be trusted because the government should not be trusted (Maher),
• Vaccines should be a personal choice (Bialik, Cavallari).

This last argument is a big reason the anti-vaccination movement has spread beyond community pockets where cultural or religious beliefs were once considered the biggest threat to herd immunity.

Now the people opting out of vaccinations are just as likely to be middle- to upper-class urbanites in chic neighbourhoods. These buyers of organic produce and drivers of hybrid cars have somehow equated “vaccines” as another toxic product. At best, vaccines are optional. At worst, they are bad for us.

It’s not only celebrities but Gov. Chris Christie and Sen. Rand Paul a medical doctor made remarks about freedom of “choice” in the immunization issue. Christie feels that parents deserved to have “some measure of choice” when it came to vaccinations. Meanwhile, Sen. Paul vocalized in several interviews that he believes immunizations should be “voluntary,” calling it “an issue of freedom and public health.”

Alicia Silverstone, the actress made famous by her role as Cher Horowitz in the movie Clueless has friends whose children experienced adverse reactions to vaccines? If Silverstone were anyone else, her parenting expertise would be relegated to the depths of the anonymous mommy blog universe. But she’s not, which means that her pseudo-medical advice will find an audience in those who confuse fame with credibility and admiration with respect.

In the case of Jenny McCarthy, who claimed for years that her son’s autism was caused by vaccination, she relied on a highly contested and later retracted study in The Lancet medical journal, which attributed the measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccine with autism spectrum disorders in children.

The impact of this fallacious assertion was, and continues to be, internationally profound, with the resurgence of infectious diseases such as measles and mumps that were once thought eradicated. The fact that no credible, peer-reviewed study has proven a link between vaccinations and autism still fails to convince some fearful anti-vaccine spokespeople, who bury themselves in fringe studies and the comfort of celebrity confirmation.

These prominent “anti-vaxxers” risk not only their own children’s health and the health of children born to celebrity-affected and/or suggestible parents, but also the children who — for legitimate medical reasons — cannot be vaccinated and rely on herd immunization to remain healthy. Without the fame attached to their names, Silverstone and McCarthy would be a couple of fringe mommy bloggers preaching to the abyss of an absent online audience.

When a celebrity joins a social cause, the response produced can range from admirable support to an eye roll. However, when the issue is whether to vaccinate their children, celebrities advocating on the “no” side can face quite the push-back.  Jenny McCarthy, the poster-woman for the anti-vaccine movement can’t even post a seemingly innocent and unrelated question on Twitter without spurring hundreds of cracks about her anti-vaccine views.

Still, unlike some of the other crazy things celebrities will do to their kids, the decision not to vaccinate one’s children – and the example it sets – can affect the wider community. As public health practitioners will readily admit vaccines do not work 100 percent of the time, and some children – for instance, those receiving certain medical treatments – cannot get them. Furthermore, many of the diseases being vaccinated against can spread before their symptoms are exhibited. The idea of “herd immunity” is that the more people are vaccinated against diseases, the more those at-risk individuals – those for whom vaccines aren’t effective or otherwise can’t be used – are also protected, and the more likely a disease can be more or less eradicated.



The 2010 PBS Frontline documentary “The Vaccine War” looked into debate between the science community and the anti-vaccine movement, focusing on pockets in America where the movement has gained enough traction to be flagged by the CDC. An interactive map released by the Council on Foreign Relations showed where vaccine-preventable diseases – including measles, mumps and the whooping cough – have resurfaced in the United States in recent years.

At the end of the day, it is the parents’ choice. But they do need to understand that it’s a choice that not only impacts that individual child. It has implications for others who are around that child.

Katie Couric devoted an episode of her show to the concerns about the safety of vaccines used to treat human papillomavirus (known as HPV). Critics say she and her producers gave too much weight and credence to the anti-vaccine crowd. Couric took to The Huffington Post to respond to the fuss, where she defended the show’s goal to help parents make an informed decision about the HPV vaccine, not cause irrational fear, while concluding she personally believes the benefits of receiving the vaccine far outweigh its risks.

However, Couric’s intentions aside, that may not be the message being delivered to parents. In some places, opting out of vaccinations has been on the rise, with many parents echoing the anti-vaccine movements – and its celebrity mouthpieces’ – line of thought.

It’s worth noting that plenty of celebrities, including Amanda Peet, Jennifer Lopez and Keri Russell, have publicly taken the side of the science community when it comes to vaccines, and vaccination rate remains high in the USA and Canada. But that also may be fostering a false sense of security that could allow anti-vaccine ideas to take hold.
“We are a victim of our own success. Dr. Kristine Sheedy, a spokeswoman for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Disease states that “We’ve made these diseases disappear for the average person so the outcome of that is that parents don’t necessarily feel threatened, they don’t feel that urgency to get vaccinated,”


Is it time for Social Marketers to get involved in the Gun Debate?

As I mentioned in my blog a few weeks ago I have been an advocate against guns for as long as I can remember. Maybe it is a Canadian thing, although many Canadians own guns. I am not against freedom of choice; I abhor most types of censorship and am not a big fan of government regulations. However, as a social marketer I do believe there are some issues worth fighting for. It seems that almost every week I hear about innocent people being killed by guns in the USA. Why is this happening and what can be done about it?

In a recent blog  I pointed out that gun control seems to be an issue where common sense seems to be non-existent and you wonder if normally intelligent people seem to lose their mind when confronted with it.

Fareed Zakaria   pointed outs in his article the solution to gun violence is clear ”the killing of young children and many other mass murders using guns is not a complex problem that will require a complex solution. In fact, the problem is straightforward and the solution is blindingly obvious to any thinking person.”

Zacharia points out that people point to three sets of causes when talking about events such as the shootings of young kids and their teachers in Connecticut:

  • First, the psychology of the killer;
  • Second, the environment of violence in our popular culture; and,
  • Third, easy access to guns.

Any one of these might explain a single shooting. What Americans should be discussing is not one single event but why they have so many of them.  The U.S. gun homicide rate is 30 times that of France or Australia, according to the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime, and 12 times higher than the average for other developed countries. Note, Canada with the tenth of the population of the USA had 173 firearm homicides in 2009.

First we hear that mental health is the issue but if psychology is the main cause, Zacharia points out the USA should have 12 times as many psychologically disturbed people. But they don’t, actually the USA does take mental disorders seriously and invest more in this area than do many other industrialized countries.

Is America’s popular culture the cause? This is highly unlikely, as largely the same culture exists in other industrialized countries. Think Canada for example, we are exposed to the same movies, TV shows, and video and Internet games and have a fraction of the gun murders than the USA. Zacharia points out that youth in England and Wales are also exposed to virtually identical cultural influences as in the United States. Yet the rate of gun homicide there is a tiny fraction of the USA. Why? Britain has tough gun laws. The Japanese who invented the video games industry ( think Nintendo/Sony etc.) and  are video game crazies and are at the cutting edge of the world of video games. Yet their gun related homicides rate in 2008 was 11 … yes 11 compared to the USA which was 11,029 in 2008.

Now it is true that Japan’s population slightly over 128 million  is less than half of the USA population but when you look at the stats you only need to know that Japan has perhaps the tightest regulation of guns in the industrialized world.

Australians with a population of 23 million people are exposed to video games and violent movies and they also have people with serious mental heal problems but gun related homicides rate in 2008 was 31. That as many people who get killed by guns in the USA every day.

So when you look at the  data it would strongly suggest to anyone with common sense , that  the USA have so much more gun violence than other countries because they have far more permissive laws than others regarding the sale and possession of guns.

Let’s face it in any society there will always be mentally deranged people with severe mental illness. And some might be influenced by popular culture. But if the movies and video games is the problem why is the killing of innocent victims by guns on a weekly basis not a problem in other industrialized countries?

A recent comment by Bob Costas  in an interview with “The Daily Show” host Jon Stewart got me thinking. Costas stated that “I think any sane person believes that we ought not to have high capacity magazines and assault rifles and that there ought to be background checks.  “We can tighten all that stuff up without replacing the second amendment.”

Costas told Stewart that “there is a gun culture in America. “We’ve changed the culture on a lot of things without changing the laws, no one repealed the first amendment, but we changed people’s attitudes towards racist or homophobic remarks. Cigarettes remain a legal product but attitudes towards them and an understanding of their dangers have taken hold, so the culture has changed.”

Yes change in attitudes about guns in America … sounds like a JOB FOR SOCIAL MARKETERS.

So I wonder why in all the debates on gun control, Americans are not talking about changing the gun culture? Why for example in a town hall meeting do I hear women living in fear in their homes, arming themselves to the teeth because they are afraid someone is going to attack them in their home. Why do we now hear from politicians and those wonderful folks at the NRA the idea that we should now extend homeland security i.e. armed guards in primary schools. Is this what Americans want to see in their schools?

Another issue for me as a social marketer and a public health advocate is why has gun control not become a public health issue in America

The National Center for Disease Control (CDC) data on firearm fatalities in 2005 showed that greater than 39,000 deaths were caused by firearms. These deaths included 16,000 suicides, greater than 12,000 homicides, 600 justified defensive uses, and the remaining deaths were accidental discharges. Source

Rauda Tellawi states that Guns hurt people, society and the economy in many ways, yet public health campaigns do not emphasize gun violence as a public health issue. In other words, though the Second Amendment conserves the basic right of self-protection, advocates also need to understand that fighting for this right is also a fight against others’ rights to a healthy life, free from the terror created by irresponsible gun owners.

Sara K. Rasmussen points out in her article, Surgeon’s decree: Gun control a public health issue that the National Rifle Association (NRA) lobby has successfully blocked reasonable measures to control and regulate firearms in USA for years.  Consider these NRA “achievements”: 10 years ago they succeeded in eliminating federal funding to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) for public health research that would examine the effects of gun violence on our society. The result is that there is currently no credible evidence on which to evaluate the effects of gun control. The NRA lobby actively seeks to remove from office those individuals who would make gun control policy a priority in the United States. And, they recently succeeded in making it illegal for a physician, to ask patients about guns in the home.

How did this happen? Why has public health in the USA not been more vocal on this issue?

It is time for public health people in the USA, including social marketers to take action on this important issue just like they did with smoking many years ago. Shouldn’t public health professionals have a say on what responsible gun ownership looks like.

As Rasmussen states, “I don’t think it looks like a country where unstable, isolated youths can easily access assault weapons. It doesn’t look like a country where a 4-year-old can be murdered for opening his mother’s front door.  And I doubt it looks like a country where our elementary school teachers are carrying concealed weapons.”

John Parisella writes in Maclean’s magazine Is it easier to buy a gun than a kitten in the United States?

Gun violence is a public health concern, and it is high time that social marketers take this issue up as a public health concern. There may be funding from the Mayor’s council and other organizations who may be interested in funding a social marketing campaign to address the “gun culture” in the USA.

Let me know what you think.


How NOT to do Private Public Partnerships in Public Health Social Marketing… Healthy Eating in the UK

A few years ago I read about a partnership in Great Britain that made me wonder if the new British government had sold out to the private sector and hurt the credibility of private/public partnerships.

Food marketers in the U.K. were being asked to step up efforts to educate the public about healthy eating, after the new British government cut its $120 million Change4Life anti-obesity marketing campaign. In return the government promised not to impose new restrictions on food marketing.

The Conservative Party’s health secretary, Andrew Lansley, ditched the three-year; $120 million budget set aside by his Labour predecessor and urged a “new approach to public health.” Lansley said that he would not be pressing [the commercial sector] to provide actual funding behind the campaign, and they need to do more,” he said. “If we are to reverse the trends in obesity, the commercial sector needs to change their business practices, including how they promote their brands and product reformulation.”

The Business4Life initiative brought  together marketers including Kraft, Coca-Cola, Kellogg, Mars, Nestle, Pepsi Co, Tesco, Cadbury and Unilever and claims on its website that the group will offer the equivalent of $300 million worth of expertise to encourage better diets and more exercise.

“Business is ready to play its part,” said the group’s leader, Ian Barber. “We welcome being seen as part of the solution rather than being constantly castigated as being part of the problem. We are more likely to get the right results if we have a positive role than if we are constantly having mud chucked at us.”

“We have to make Change4Life less a government campaign, more a social movement,” said Lansley. “Less paid for by government, more backed by business. Less about costly advertising, more about supporting family and individual responses.”

Marketers and media owners saw Lansley’s decision as a reprieve from moves to instigate a pre-9 p.m. ban on TV advertising of food that is high in fat, salt and sugar, which would have threatened more than $400 million a year in advertising revenue, according to government regulator Ofcom. Source

The reaction was quite critical:

In their latest attempt to stem the tide of British obesity, the national government is asking junk food producers to fund healthy living campaigns in return for a promise to not slap any taxes on fatty, sugary, salty, processed foods. And in keeping with this new style of governance, the Prime Minister will also be asking London’s crack and crystal meth dealers to fund the nation’s “Say No to Drugs” programs in return for repealing the nation’s drug laws. They may also look into new funding arrangements with the tobacco industry, industrial polluters etc. So, why would junk food producers want to fund successful anti-obesity / healthy living programs? Answer: they wouldn’t. But, they probably won’t mind spending a few million on ineffective programs if it means they can continue making billions selling crap food to the British public. Source

In the Daily Mail a very interesting piece by Sophie Borland and Nick McDermott

And for all those non-Brits out there, don’t think that your government wouldn’t sell you out just as quick. Major food firms will be asked to fund healthy living campaigns but controversially in return will not face a clampdown on fatty, sugary and salty meals, the health secretary said yesterday.

Manufacturers of some of Britain’s most well-known soft drinks, chocolates and snacks will be asked to pay for public advertising campaigns. And in exchange, Andrew Lansley will not pass any new laws on foods which are deemed to be unhealthy.

He told a conference for public health doctors he wanted to free food and drink firms from the ‘burden of regulation’  and would invite them to take on a greater role in public health.Mr Lansley said Government programmes cannot force people to make healthy choices, adding that individuals must take more responsibility for their choices.

‘It’s not about good food or bad food because that way, you just close companies out. It’s actually about a good diet or bad diet, good exercise or lack of exercise, it’s about people having a responsibility,’ he said.

He added it’s ‘perfectly possible to eat a bag of crisps, to eat a Mars bar, to drink a carbonated soft drink’ as long as it is in moderation.

But health campaigners immediately condemned the Government’s decision to go cap in hand to companies such as Cadbury, Mars and Coca-Cola in a bid to motivate people to follow better diets and take more exercise.

‘The quid pro quo is that the department gives industry an assurance that there will be no regulation or legislation over its activities. Source

Betty McBride, director of policy and communications at the British Heart Foundation, said: ‘We wait with bated breath for the fast food merchants, chocolate bar makers and fizzy drink vendors to beat a path to the public health door. ‘Meanwhile, parents and children continue to be faced with the bewildering kaleidoscope of confusing food labels and pre-watershed junk food adverts.’ Source

 In an article Children are Obese due to Overfeeding Not Lack of Exercise Scientists found that lack of exercise is not to blame for increased levels of childhood obesity. A new report suggests that physical inactivity appears to be the result of fatness, not its cause. Researchers now believe that overfeeding by parents and children eating more junk food is the root cause of weight gain. The report also said targeting nutrition rather than exercise was the best way to help obese children lose weight Source

So here we are almost 2 years later and my worst fears have been realised.

The British government’s attempts to get people to eat more healthfully in 2012 are already backfiring, with a top supermarket chain pulling out of a partnership with the Department of Health and an opposition Member of Parliament calling the Change4Life campaign as a “glorified advertisement for big business.”

Since coming to power in May 2010, the Conservative Party-led coalition U.K. government has cut back spending on public health initiatives by at least 50%. In a controversial move, it announced that it would ask marketers to help plug the gap.

The Change4Life campaign launched Supermeals this week with the help of TV chef Ainsley Harriott, who has assembled a book of supposedly healthier versions of the nation’s favorite dishes. It is designed to help families make the most of the Supermeals deals available at local stores and promises that each recipe can feed a family of four for £5 ($7.80). In addition, 4 million recipe packs will be given away to Change4Life supporters.

A government press release said, “Shockingly, research has found that the second-most-popular evening meal is a sandwich as opposed to a balanced meal. … If we plan our meals and shopping, we can save money and make healthier choices at mealtimes.”

The Supermeals drive, which is supported by a national print campaign by M&C Saatchi, has also caused controversy because many of the items use ingredients like processed cheese sauce, which has a high salt and fat content.

Asda defends its involvement in the campaign. According to a statement from the Walmart -owned company: “Healthy eating and planning meals on a budget are really important to our customers and their children all year. That’s why it’s important for us to be involved in the Supermeals campaign, roll back the prices of hundreds of healthier products, including fresh fruit and vegetables, and help promote quick and easy recipe ideas, and try and remove some of the barriers people face in choosing healthy options for their family.” Source

Surprise we have not seen any marketing of Yorkshire Pudding , Toad-in-the-Hole, Fish and Chips, Ploughman’s Lunch , Cottage Pie, Shepherd’s Pie, Gammon Steak with egg, Lancashire Hotpot, BubbleSqueak , English Breakfast, Bangers and Mash, Black Pudding, Bacon Roly-Poly, Cumberland Sausage, Pie and Mash with parsley liquor.