By Patricia McManus, RN, PhD, CNPM
It’s is not a secret that I have been very outspoken in my criticism of the media strategies employed by the City of Milwaukee to address infant mortality. However, their marketing campaign has reached the point of being ‘Over the top’ and blatantly disrespectful!
The messages constructed are ineffective. I have been fielding questions about their latest ads (infants in beds with a butcher knife beside them) for the past week; these questions have come from professionals and non-professionals, locally and from around the country. People are confused, they are offended, but, more importantly, they are not clear on the intent of the message, because unlike the view of those responsible for the ads, they do not see themselves as uncaring monsters that do not care about their children.
I have also talked to people who know a lot more about social marketing than I do who say that that the success of these types of campaigns is based on them being able to trigger a “responsive chord” in the targeted group to effect change. The key is that the viewers see themselves in the message. These marketing norms are not being followed in this campaign. Most of the people I talked to said, “What are they talking about, I would never take a knife to bed.” Now, I know some people would immediately say, “Are they stupid not to get the message?” My response would be that the “stupidity” is on those who created the ads and those responsible for releasing them. The message should be something the resonate with the targeted group and encourages them to contemplate the message and then change.
This past week I had an informal meeting with African American mothers and grandmothers who expressed many of the concerns I have been describing. I assumed that the ad agency did not conduct focus groups to determine how the ads would be received. I was shocked to find out those focus groups with African American mothers and grandmothers were indeed conducted. It is my understanding their focus group members had concerns similar to what I had been hearing. I was told the ad agency then explained what the ad was suppose to convey and then the participants provided them a more positive response.
Now, as I previously stated, I am no expert in this area, but if the focus group did not get “the message” until it was explained, didn’t the ad agency need to go back to the drawing board? Yet, they ignored the initial feedback from the participants and went forward with the campaign. If they were not going to listen to the focus groups to make appropriate changes, why did they do them in the first place? Maybe the ad agency or the health department plans to have people on the buses to explain the ads. That would make about as much sense as releasing these ads in the first place.
These ads are one of several attempts by the Health Department to shame the community into doing something different. Isn’t the definition of insanity is doing the same thing repeatedly and expecting a different results. There is a role for social marketing, but is must be effective. Because the marketing services are provided for free, does not mean it will be effective. These ads say more about what the health department thinks of vulnerable populations than anything else.
The death of an infant is a tragedy no matter what race or social class they come from. As one who has been trying to get the Milwaukee community involved in this issue for decades, this includes our agency having a federally funded infant mortality project that works with the most at-risk pregnant women and mothers of infants, I am happy to see more awareness and resources being put toward this issue.
Black Health Coalition of Wisconsin has data, which has been provided to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, that proves we have made a positive difference with the families that we serve. But this is not enough. No single strategy is the answer. No single agency has the answer. No single message is the answer. it must involve multi-level and multi-sector commitment. There is no doubt that the impacted community must also be engaged; the black-white infant death gap is too great for the disparity to be lost in the politics of things. But let the engagement be respectful with the belief that the African American community has a problem, but is not the problem. Going to Black churches on a Sunday to promote a Safe Sleep Sabbath and calling the community baby killers just a few weeks later is not the way to truly end infant deaths!
Patricia McManus is the president and CEO of Black Health Coalition of Wisconsin, Inc.