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#ZombieDilemma: Humor Can Backfire in a Public Health Campaign

July 6, 2016   |   Jaclyn De Bonis

In the world of communications, often the goal of a campaign is to try to get as many people as possible to see a message with the hope that it will spark a larger conversation — or, if you’re lucky, behavior change.

With literally hundreds of articles vying for our attention daily, getting noticed isn’t always easy, so to reach their audiences, communicators sometimes turn to a popular, but underused tool: humor.

Humor has been used for years as a way to encourage men to go in for their annual prostate exams, remind women to stay on top of their breast health and even by the CDC to stimulate disaster preparedness.

While these campaigns might garner attention, you’ve got to wonder: How effective are they at driving behavior change?

That was a question Dr. Julia Fraustino and her colleague Liang Ma sought to answer in their study: CDC’s Use of Social Media and Humor in a Risk Campaign — “Preparedness 101: Zombie Apocalypse.”

At the recent frank2016 conference, Fraustino spoke about her study and what it means for social change communicators.

In the study, they found that while the CDC’s campaign went viral, with more than 3.6 billion impressions from traditional and social media coverage in a matter of a few months, the campaign’s reference to zombies made people significantly less likely to be prepared, make a disaster kit and have a plan.

In other words, the CDC’s campaign backfired.

Their communications goal (having as many people as possible see their message) succeeded, but it actually worked against their program goal (having people make disaster kits and have disaster plans).

It is important to know that while humor can be used as an effective tool to reach audiences and generate awareness, in a health context, humor may trivialize the issue.

And in Fraustino’s words, “If you don’t think something’s serious, you’re not going to prepare for it.”


For an in-depth look at Fraustino’s study, check it out here or watch the interview below.

This post originally appeared on Above The Noise, a blog from Burness 

Jaclyn De Bonis
Jaclyn is the communications coordinator for the Public Policy team at Burness, a global communications firm . She graduated from the University of Florida with a degree in journalism. Follower her @jaclyndebonis