Blog Promotion: Making Public Health Memes That Matter

During our review of health blogs and other sites this week, one constant lament you see is that the message space is getting smaller. With many people getting their information from quick hit blogs and now microblogging social media, we are seeing the phenomenon of “shrinking messages in a shrinking world.” Lots of medically oriented blogs have resources on how to deliver public health messages in a “small message space” environment (Twitter being the classic example, but Facebook and others also qualify). We’ll be talking more about those in a future post.

But for many of our thornier public health issues we still want a long form blog if we can, because there are certain messages you just can’t express in 140 characters, and we need a method that gives people a reason to check out what we’re about. One of these methods utilizes the ubiquitous memes, quick-hit images which can be found nearly everywhere on the Net including blogs and social media, an important repository for cat pictures, clips from commercials and embarrassing high school yearbook photos.

[One Laptop Per Cat]

Realistically, one can easily deconstruct a meme into two simple component parts: a memorable backdrop and a pithy quip, delivered almost obligatorily in white block Impact font and all caps. Using them for public health messaging purposes is not a new innovation; one of the posts we reviewed from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation listed some of their favourite public health memes from (what else?) Public Health Memes (warning: occasionally not safe for the easily offended). But here’s where these relatively embryonic public health memes fall down: they’re preaching to the choir. You really need to understand the issue (and what the correct side of the issue is) to understand the vast majority; these aren’t memes meant for the unconverted or ignorant.

[Preaching To The Choir!]

Or worse, they’re making the unconverted or ignorant the butt of the joke, which is great for a chuckle around the water cooler, but try not to make too much fun of your Congresscritter when they’re the one writing the federal budget that funds you. If people feel insulted, they won’t be informed (and they won’t take the time to read the rest of what you’ve got to say). We’d like people to find the message resonant because it’s correct, not because our jokes are barbed — and hopefully attract new interest to our message. How can we make public health memes that matter to a wider audience?

The technical aspect of creating a meme is straightforward; there are even sites that will generate them for you off source material such as Meme Generator and imgflip (many even have stock images of “typical” meme backgrounds ready to use). So the real question is the textual content. I think we really try too hard to come up with something humourous at the risk of selling short some of our more serious messages, especially with topics a general audience might find harder to grasp in a “small message space” like health equity or policy direction. Overall, if you’re going to err one way or the other, I think it’s more important to be memorable than funny. Here’s one I threw together in 30 seconds in Photoshop:

[One Pound Of Fat = 3500 Calories]

Is this inspired prose, or even deathless comedy? Frankly, no. It took no great talent (and believe me, I have no great talent) to write this or put it together — all we did was keep it simple and assumed no foreknowledge on the part of the reader. Moreover, there really isn’t anything amusing about saying a pound of fat is 3500 calories, but we certainly want a public growing more overweight to remember it, and an ugly blob with garish text will accomplish that! (Throwing in a gratuitous OMG helps, of course. Just don’t overdo it on the netslang.) Use an image like this to set off some other sort of text — possibly even a useful blog post on a public health course site, as one completely random suggestion — and make it a visual draw for your larger blog message where you can educate them further about the issue. Most social media sites will also let you attach images to your postings or microblogs, and a picture is almost certainly worth another 140 characters. Once you’ve done that, link them back to your main post. Catching eyes!

As another example, here’s how we might “memeify” one of the California Endowment‘s most famous campaigns:

[WTF Zip Code Life Expectancy]

This was even quicker. All I did was add three infamous, instantly recognizable letters (admittedly, one with a bit of punch) to a screenshot from the Endowment’s website, and we’ve communicated not just what the numbers are but that there’s something really wrong about those numbers (the zipcodes are Los Altos and Oakland, respectively). Think this image might stick with its reader? Even a reader that knows absolutely nothing about health equity has enough context to understand the issue we’re trying to educate them about, which primes them for the larger message your blog post will discuss.

But notice that especially with this meme, what people think of as “the meme text” on the image itself is an even smaller message space than what we’re using it to highlight. The text we add to the meme doesn’t necessarily have to be the message and or even the most important part of the message — often, it’s simply what gets people to read and remember the message, no less or no more. Still, it’s provocative and simple enough that someone’s eye will be caught and someone will read it and click through, and that’s a powerful tool. If we as a discipline can learn to take advantage of this medium, we’ll be able to ride the trend and start changing some minds while we still have the opportunity.

One last one, with a simple message on a measles picture from the CDC:

[No Measles Today? Thank A Vaccine]

Thank a vaccine! None of these messages attack or require a great deal of thought to process, but they catch your eye and they provoke interest. Then you’ve got a reader that’s interested, and hopefully afterwards we’ll now have a reader who’s educated.

Sooner or later the meme craze will exhaust itself like every fad and the cool kids will move onto something else, and we in public health will follow. But until then a craftily crafted meme can be a strong asset in your blog traffic toolkit if you grasp the relatively straightforward formula that makes it work.


3 thoughts on “Blog Promotion: Making Public Health Memes That Matter

  1. Cameron, I loved your post! I had not thought of memes at all as a vehicle for distributing health information and promotion, and although they run the risk of dangerously oversimplifying or even spreading false information, they’re perfect for distributing bytes. Ideally, they could be featured in a similar manner to your own post, ie: in combination with text, but I could definitely see the fat or measles memes going viral on social media.

    I appreciated that you decided that realism is more important than humor. I do think that memes can be just as successful without humor. Humans also have a fascination with horror, after all. It may be just what is needed to reach younger patients while memes are so popular, as you mention.

    • I think impact matters more, but if you can be funny … it’s just that there’s a lot in public health that isn’t funny.

      I’m going to be using that Preaching To The Choir one again, though. I’m proud of that.

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