Don’t Fear the Ingenuity of Corporations: Learn From It.

Cool story in today’s NY Times, about re-purposing common corporate advertising strategies in pursuit of public health goals:
Warning: Habits May Be Good for You

A FEW years ago, a self-described “militant liberal” named Val Curtis decided that it was time to save millions of children from death and disease. So Dr. Curtis, an anthropologist then living in the African nation of Burkina Faso, contacted some of the largest multinational corporations and asked them, in effect, to teach her how to manipulate consumer habits worldwide.

Dr. Curtis, now the director of the Hygiene Center at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, had spent years trying to persuade people in the developing world to wash their hands habitually with soap. Diseases and disorders caused by dirty hands — like diarrhea — kill a child somewhere in the world about every 15 seconds, and about half those deaths could be prevented with the regular use of soap, studies indicate.

But getting people into a soap habit, it turns out, is surprisingly hard.

To overcome this hurdle, Dr. Curtis called on three top consumer goods companies to find out how to sell hand-washing the same way they sell Speed Stick deodorant and Pringles potato chips.

Two interesting points, here, in my opinion.
One is about the influence of advertising. This story adds fuel to the fire of the debate over whether advertising tries to, or succeeds at, manipulating us. The debate is often framed in terms of whether advertising can produce in us new desires. At the very least, this story makes clear that companies work hard to produce in us new habits. Whether that’s better or worse, or whether it amounts to the same thing, is open to discussion.
The other is a lesson about the ingenuity of corporations: don’t fear it, learn from it.

“For a long time, the public health community was distrustful of industry, because many felt these companies were trying to sell products that made people’s lives less healthy, by encouraging them to smoke, or to eat unhealthy foods, or by selling expensive products people didn’t really need,” Dr. Curtis said. “But those tactics also allow us to save lives. If we want to really help the world, we need every tool we can get.”

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