Health department aims at H1N1 with advertising

November 14, 2009
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The Kent County Health Department took a punch at swine flu with a marketing and advertising campaign that used mediums from social networking to tissue packets printed in Japan.

The health department used $350,000 of the $1.8 million in federal money designated to fight the swine flu to educate the public, provide tips on how to keep from getting it and encourage people to get vaccinated. Most of the federal money is going toward implementing the vaccination program.

Community Relations Coordinator Bridie Bereza, who led the marketing effort, said she started planning in August after it became apparent that autumn was destined to accelerate the H1N1 flu season. She came up with the tagline “Stick It To The Flu” and the boxing theme for the marketing and advertising materials.

“I think I was probably laying in bed when I came up with it,” Bereza joked.

Grand Valley State University Professor Tim Penning, who teaches public relations and studies advertising, said the barrage of messages in a variety of formats is a strategy in itself.

“Sometimes it can be a strategy to do a blitz approach — a lot of message in a short period of time to create a sense of urgency and word of mouth,” Penning said.

Bereza said she knew that the pandemic would draw media coverage as the year wears on.

“H1N1 was a story unto itself. Regardless of whether we had done something or not, it would have gotten attention. We wanted to encourage people not to be afraid of the vaccine.”

Bereza said she wanted to target the message in Kent County toward people from infancy to 24 years old. They are considered at high risk of contracting H1N1 because they are too young to have been exposed to similar flu bugs in the past. Many of those who have gotten sick have been in that age group, enough that some schools have been temporarily closed.

She came up with the graphics for billboards, brochures and print ads. About 14 billboards were rented across the county. Brochures were mailed to every household.

“It’s a simple design. You can just buy some graphics. It’s nothing you need a major in graphic arts to do,” said Bereza, who used Adobe products to create the items.

In addition to the piece sent to Kent County households, Bereza targeted employers with information in a regular e-mail newsletter for human resources professionals called Health Notes.

She also ordered 50,000 tissue packets wrapped in a custom label with swine flu information. They were printed in Japan, where the ploy is popular, she said. KCHD staff contacted 90 of the area’s largest employers and asked them to hand packets out to their employees.

Bereza said she’ll hand out about 15,000 of the tissue packets, along with hand sanitizer samples and pens, at the Santa Claus parade at 9 a.m. Saturday in downtown Grand Rapids.

Health department staff have reached 1,500 people directly through about 60 presentations, she said. Those free presentations are available for the workplace.

For radio and television production, Bereza turned to Cynthia Kay & Associates. Kay said her six-person firm turned the assignment into a deliverable product in three to four weeks, which she called “extremely fast.”

“They had already developed some of the concepts for the billboard advertising,” Kay said of the “Stick It To The Flu” campaign’s boxing theme. “We took one look at the billboard ads and said, ‘OK, we can actually take that and translate it really easily into radio and TV.”

The company used local talent, including a health educator from the KCHD, for the television ads, Kay said.

“The idea was to have fun, dispel misinformation and get across simple tips people can use,” she said.

Bereza also turned to the county’s World Wide Web staff to create www.stickittotheflu.com as part of the accessKent presence on the Internet. She and several health educators came up with the content, which carried out the boxing theme to the point of pitting 2008 local flu statistic against the numbers for 2009. The site also uses video produced by Kay’s company and includes links to the federal Centers for Disease Controls flu sites, including one in Spanish.

The flu also provided the department’s first foray into social networking, Bereza said.

“That’s been huge,” she said. While value of using Twitter has been difficult to measure, Bereza said the opportunity for interaction on Facebook has worked well.

“While we don’t have 10,000 friends, we do have a lot of interaction, people asking questions, giving compliments. It’s been a great way to talk to people we know live in our community. They have real questions, real concerns. The best thing is it’s free.”

She said she expects to continue to use the department’s presence on Facebook even after the H1N1 outbreak subsides.

And where better to advertise the importance of hand-washing than on the bathroom doors in public places, thanks to Johnny Advertising.

“The marketing piece of it actually was really fun,” Bereza said. “There’s nothing fun about the flu. But I really enjoyed coming up with the visual depictions and the material going out to the public.”

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