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Converting Slacker Allergy Moms: Advocacy Edition

Who gets to be in the food allergy Big Tent? Any mom who has a child with a food allergy? Or only those moms who "follow the rules?"

Food-allergy advocacy almost always focuses only on the front end of the tent: getting new moms into the fold and compliant. As I pointed out in The Stress Lasagna, the accepted method to do this is to scare people silly. Talk about deaths    name the names. Scare them into carrying epinephrine and locking down their comfort zone.

After mothers have been through the mill for a while, the result can be an anxiety disorder for them and/or their child. Advocates aren't there to pick up the pieces   they've moved on to more newbies.

I obviously really dislike the scare tactics because they can have such devastating effects over time. But...I also think it's important to point out that, a good portion of the time, scare tactics do not get people into the tent in the first place.

The controversy over the new Mylan/Dey ad (see The Ethics of Converting Allergy Slacker Momsdemonstrates the limits of fear. We know a really big group of mothers take their kid to an ER, are given a talk/referral/prescription from the on-call doctor...and don't follow up. The comments on the regional advocacy sites over the last few days all seem to focus on one thing: WE NEED TO EDUCATE THESE MOTHERS!

Advocates, you're missing the point. These mothers are educated. They have seen the reaction. They have the prescription in hand. They are choosing to ignore it, despite having the information they need.

In the advertising world, we would call this customer resistance, or a barrier. And the one thing you don't do to overcome a barrier is throw good money after bad. If a message doesn't work, you try a different message.

I read a fascinating book yesterday called "The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make A Big Difference" by Malcolm Gladwell. In the book, he talks about how one college campus wanted to increase the percentage of students who received tetanus shots. The researcher did an experiment where he gave one set of students a "high fear" brochure with dramatic terms and color photography, and the other set a "low fear" brochure without the drama and pix. The results?
"...those who were given the high-fear booklet were more convinced of the dangers of tetanus, more convinced of the importance of shots, and were more likely to say that they intended to get inoculated. All of those differences evaporated, however, when Levanthal [the researcher] looked at how many of the students actually went and got a shot. One month after the experiments, almost none of the subjects - a mere 3 percent - had actually gone to the health center to get inoculated."
Sound familiar? Scared silly, said they would follow through...but didn't. In the vernacular of the book, the message wasn't "sticky."

The book goes on to talk about the the message and the concept of "stickiness." Stickiness says that often trivial things can tip an end user into action. In this particular case, the group with the highest vaccination rate was the one in which a map of the health center with the times it was open was given to the group. This was curious, because the students clearly already knew where the health center was. But...for whatever reason, it worked.
"If we didn't know about the Stickiness Factor, we probably would conclude that something was wrong with the way the booklet explained tetanus to the students. But the Stickiness Factor suggests...that the problem probably wasn't with the overall conception of the message at all, and that maybe all the campaign needed was a little gold box."
So, back to the Mylan/Dey commercial. The concept of the mother's convenience is the "gold box" of the commercial. ("Even with your peanut allergy and a cake made with who knows what. Because we're prepared - with EpiPen®.") It isn't about education. It's about that little tidbit that tips them into that next step.

When a commercial like this gets developed, there's generally a good bit of market research that happens first. Several concepts are developed, and each of those concepts has an emotional theme. But all those concepts generally tie back to one of two mega-emotions identified back in the Mad Men days of advertising: fear or greed.

Mylan's ad agency probably gathered as many moms with allergic children as they could get in a room. Some of them would have been the moms they were targeting - moms who knew their children were allergic but still didn't carry an Epi-Pen® injector. They would have showed them each concept and watched their response. Ideally, they would have done this in several cities, with different socioeconomic mixes. And then they would have picked the message that worked the best. They didn't even need to know why it worked  and it's often surprising which one does.

How does this relate to food allergy advocacy? Passion is great, but knowledge and effectiveness are more important. If food-allergy advocates really want to convert the slacker moms, they need to have more weapons in their arsenal than fear.

I don't really think people are mad at Mylan for uncovering the "gold box" message that works. I think the food allergy community is really mad at the slacker mothers. The ones who "get away with it", seemingly without consequences almost all of the time. Because the message they send to the world is:
Mothers who get all stressed out about their kids' allergies are overreacting. Look at me    my kid lives life without all these restrictions or prescriptions. 
We don't want to convert these women. We want to hate them.

But the negative messages that make our lives so hard are coming from them, whether stated or implied. Shooting the Mylan messenger isn't going to make these women go away.

Advocates - if you want the world at large to stop hearing this message, you're going to have to get these mothers into the Big Tent. And you're going to have to learn new circus tricks to do it   they're bored by the ones they've already seen.


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