Thursday, July 1, 2010

What do Silly Bandz have that public health doesn't?

If you have a young kid, or even spotted one recently, chances are they are bedecked in squiggly plastic braceletes and necklaces - Silly Bandz!
 A small Toledo company is growing faster than it can keep up. Silly Bandz are all the craze,
"Roughly about a year ago, it really started to take off virally with the kids throughout different pockets of the United States. And the rest is history," said company president Robert John Croak. "It's insane."  The website gets over 11 million hits in one day!

The Silly Bandz craze reminds me of how malleable we humans can be and, as Dan Ariely says, how predictably irrational we are in our daily lives (Predictably Irrational, Harper Collins, 2008).   A human trait that we haven’t been able to capitalize on in most of our efforts to influence and “change” public health behaviors.

In The Tipping Point ( Little, Brown, 200) Malcolm Gladwell writes about an intriguing human phenomenon - the almost magical point at which a behavior among a small group becomes a trend, and sometimes an epidemic. For example, the resurgence in popularity of the almost dead shoe brand, Hush Puppies, - starting with kids buying them in resale shops in the Village, and ultimately becoming hip in Manhattan's bars and clubs in the mid 90s; or the drastic change in ideation about among youth on the island of Micronesia over the past 30 years - it now being viewed as a statement of their spirit of experimentation and rebellion.

It's not a new question, but I've been thinking about it again as I work on an obesity project here in NYC - How do we put this daily human phenomenon to work in public health?

We need to be using what commercial and social marketers have known for decades - convince people, rather covertly, to take their cues from the healthier role models, thought leaders and behaviors around them. 
 If the messenger is as important as the message, who should be delivering messages about healthy lifestyle, in what voice?  What would it take to instigate a word-of-mouth, "The red coats are coming" style epidemic of healthy eating and activity.  
Clearly the top-down, expert driven messages about the risks of overweight and obesity, how to count calories and how much to exercise, have not worked.