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Can Public Awareness Campaigns Convince People to Care About Aging?

Sherri Snelling July 29, 2019
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Successful campaigns know how to create a movement by going beyond awareness to action.

Every organization with a social mission would love a slam dunk, no cost, viral public awareness campaign such as the ALS “Ice Bucket Challenge” or the recent #DanceorDonate movement–where celebrities engage for free, the campaigns racked up millions of eyeballs (and donations).

The longevity market is no exception. Noteworthy awareness campaigns in aging including the Institute on Aging’s poignant “Me” video as part of its AgeOn campaign or ICAA’s “Changing the Way We Age” campaign with personal stories to shift perceptions on aging. The National Council on Aging launched Falls Prevention Awareness Day, and AARP Foundation’s Connect2Affect effort seeks to combat senior loneliness.

Most of these campaigns target older people and those who work in the aging community. But some awareness campaigns are engaging millennials in the conversation. The SCAN Foundation launched its “Do YOU Give a Care?” campaign in 2018 and Age UK’s multi-year campaign, connects millennials to the growing senior loneliness and social isolation problem.

According to Mari Nicholson, director of communications at the SCAN Foundation, Do YOU Give a Care’s mission is to “harness the intelligence, energy and experience of millennials who are driving disruption in families, communities and the workplace.” The campaign introduces millennials to caregiving resources, driving awareness through social media such as Instagram, Twitter and YouTube; video storytelling; and a PSA spot shared by campaign partners that achieved 2.7 million views in the first few months of the campaign’s launch.  

Age UK took an intergenerational approach to its “No One Should Have No One,”  social media campaign. The hashtag #NotByMySelfie encouraged millennials to post a photo with an older family member or friend—and text a £3 donation to the organization’s Advice Line for lonely seniors. The campaign sought to create cognitive behavioral change among the younger generation by connecting them in a fun, common cause with older generations.

“The #NotByMySelfie humanizes the debate around the aging population crisis and makes you think ‘When did I last call my gran?’ In doing so it takes a long-term economic problem—the aging population—and shows that it is not merely an abstract burden. It’s about people,” said Marianne Hewitt, head of brand at Age UK, in an interview with The Guardian.

Campaign Pitfalls to Avoid

Regardless of your campaign’s target audience, how can longevity marketers find more success? A study on the use of mass media campaigns to change health behavior published in Lancet identified the pitfalls many campaigns experience. Among the common stumbling blocks are: unpersuasive, “one size fits all” messaging, inadequate funding, poorly researched formats, and lack of supplemental resources to help audiences easily embrace change.

For a campaign to be relevant, one smart approach is to listen to the target audience to understand how best to reach them. While original research is a best practice, organizations planning aging and health awareness campaigns may want to also engage a gerontologist or psychologist. These aging experts can review existing literature and integrate behavioral change elements—rather than just relying on creative marketing content.

An article in the Stanford Social Innovation Review cautioned that “the gulf between scholarship that could help practitioners avoid harm, reduce risk, or increase the effectiveness of their efforts and practice is common and wide.”

Another common mistake? Believing your own PR. Great press coverage does not necessarily mean a successful campaign. The “Zombie Apocalypse” campaign by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) achieved tremendous buzz for its viral video campaign on disaster preparedness. However, the buzzworthiness did not turn into behavioral change, and the campaign failed to encourage people to become more prepared for emergencies. In fact, an analytical study of the campaign demonstrated that while the humorous zombies were memorable, it actually made viewers take emergency preparedness less seriously.

Keys to Campaign Success

If your organization is thinking of kicking off a public or social awareness campaign on aging, follow these keys to success:

  1. Plan (and Budget) For the Long Run: Campaigns require significant time and money to build and sustain momentum. Take the time to commission research, develop strategies and messaging, test concepts, engage partners and execute your campaign. Expect 12-18 months in planning and development before you get to launch day. Also, success requires a commitment to budgeting year-after-year, to keep content fresh for continued engagement.
  • Rely on Expert Research: Know your audience and listen to what they want and need. And, consider having a gerontology expert as part of the team to ensure you accommodate for aging sensitivities and build cognitive behavioral change into the campaign. The SCAN Foundation partnered with the Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs on research as the foundation of the campaign’s focus on millennial impact and feedback on caregiving.
  • Make Your Message Simple But Significant: Many campaigns develop brilliant creative and strong messaging, only to fly under the radar because of weak execution. The most successful campaigns use a simple call to action and maximize reach by adopting a multimedia, multi-channel approach through an integrated “PESO” plan (paid media, earned media, shared media and owned media).
  • Amplify Reach by Engaging Allies: Increase the rate of success by engaging partners early and arming them with easy-to-use tools that encourage their participation. Brooks Kenny of WomenAgainstAlzheimer’s said she made simple but specific partner requests around its “Be Brain Powerful” campaign. They kept in continuous contact with participating partners, facilitating update calls, providing turnkey creative assets and offering key messaging as part of the partner tool kit.
  • Make Consumer Participation Simple: If people have to fill out a long survey or add a lot of time and effort into an already overloaded schedule, or they are required to embrace an effort with no roadmap or tools to help them, the campaign is doomed. The UK Age #NotByMySelfie campaign worked because it tapped into the daily social media behavior of millennials and it made the connection to aging fun for all (some seniors reported the social media photos were their first appearance on Twitter or Instagram).
  • Build in Metrics: An important part of any campaign is to analyze what worked and what did not. Whether pivots can be made mid-campaign or the next phase of the campaign can be more effective, this is a crucial element in demonstrating success for continued internal support and funding, expanding the engagement with proven results and satisfying those who participated by reporting on the impact they helped create.
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Sherri Snelling

Sherri Snelling is a gerontologist and expert on aging and caregiving. She has been a longtime Alzheimer’s awareness advocate and has also created and worked on award-winning social awareness campaigns including the Nintendo-Starlight Foundation Fun Center program at children’s hospitals, the first campus rape education campaign with the National Rape Treatment Center and the “Picture Them Home” campaign with Canon and the National Center on Missing and Exploited Children for which she was awarded the Corporate Partner Award by NCMEC and the U.S. Department of Justice.

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