What Public Health Can Learn About Branding From "Parks and Recreation": Fluoride, TDAZZLE, and H2Flow

"All I have on my side is facts and science...and people hate facts and science".
-Leslie Knope

On the November 21, 2013 episode of Parks and Recreation called "Fluoride", the gang once again tackled an important public health issue.  Since the towns of Pawnee and Eagleton have recently been combined, the City Council embarks on a vote regarding the merger of the towns' water reservoirs.  The Eagleton reservoir contains Fluoride and a merger would mean Pawnee residents would drink water with Fluoride for the first time in their history.

The pro-Fluoride contingent (led by Councilwoman Leslie Knope) quickly learns that Fluoride, despite all its public health benefits, faces a serious image problem!  Fellow Council members scare the public by describing Fluoride as everything from a dangerous chemical to a mind-control tool used by Communists.  When Councilman Jeremy Jamm proposes a Pawnee Clean Water Bill that would prohibit adding anything to the water supply (forever), Leslie's Parks and Recreation Administrator Tom Haverford proposes a solution:

"Jamm's already ruined Fluoride.  Everyone's scared of it.  What if we called it something else?  We re-brand."
-Tom Haverford

"What are you saying?  We need to sex-up Fluoride?"
-Leslie Knope

"You got to give people something to get excited about."
-Tom Haverford

The result:  TDAZZLE.  Leslie and Tom describe it as "not a chemical; it is an aquatic-based social media oral experience".  Their presentation on TDAZZLE engages the residents with video, social media, and a free give-away.

When Jamm fights #TDAZZLE with an idea that would actually fill the drinking water with sugar, they re-brand again.

The result: H2Flow.  Tom encourages Pawnee residents to think about H2Flow as an app for your teeth.  The more flow you take in, the more sparkle points you get.  If you get enough sparkle points, then you're on your way to your first Aqua Badge.  If you get enough Aqua Badges, they'll welcome you to the H2Flow Platinum Club.

By the time the episode ends, the re-branding has been successful.  Every Pawnee resident will have H2Flow (a.k.a. Fluoride) in their drinking water.

While this episode and the re-branding campaigns are over the top and ridiculous, they offer some important lessons to public health:

(1)  Science, facts, and reason are not always enough to change public attitudes and behaviors.  
If they were, everyone would stop smoking and get a flu shot.  Leslie and Tom acknowledged this and threw out their dry presentation of chemistry/statistics.

(2)  Language matters
One of the biggest challenges for Fluoride's image in Pawnee was its association with the term "chemical".  Chemicals are considered dangerous and toxic- so why would anyone want them in the drinking water?  Leslie and Tom had to change the way that Fluoride was being described.

(3) Get creative
Integrate advertising principles to get people on board with public health initiatives. Engage audiences by utilizing trends and aligning the "product" with what the public wants/values.  Leslie and Tom used catchy names, social media, and games to connect with residents.

(4) Keep trying
Public health problems/interventions often need to be re-framed in order to make mid-course corrections and keep up with new trends/data/challenges.  When TDAZZLE was defeated by Jamm's "Drink-ems", Leslie and Tom quickly re-branded as H2Flow.

This "image" battle is playing out across the country every day and impacts many public health issues (e.g., vaccinations).  The Fluoride battle even played out this year in Portland, Oregon. In a smart Scientific American article about the Fluoride vote in Portland, the writer Kyle Hill highlights the importance of language, communication, and framing:

"Yesterday’s vote was a failure of science communication, and it falls on public health officials to rectify that, to take back the word “chemical.” Perhaps re-framing the conversation in terms of dental health or water fluoridation as regulation, not just addition, could help. Until political questions are seriously informed by scientific answers, fear and freedom beats facts."

What Do You Think?
  • Parks & Recreation Fans:  What other lessons for public health did you find in the episode?
  • What examples can you share that highlight a public health issue/intervention that has been successfully re-branded or re-framed in recent years?
  • How can we better train public health professionals in health communication/advertising strategies that are so crucial to the success of their work?


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