On Thursday, May 30, the new Health Communication Capacity Collaborative (HC3) hosted a Learning Forum on the Art & Science of Social & Behavior Change Communication. Kirsten Böse, Director of HC3, invoked the definition of a meme from Richard Dawkins’s The Selfish Gene as “a unit of culturally transmissible information.”
When I think of a meme, I think of I Can Has Cheezburger or International Development Ryan Gosling—usually a photo with a funny caption. Those kinds of “memes” are only meant to make people laugh or maybe offend them—that is, to cause a fleeting change in emotional state, but not to change behavior. The broader, Dawkins-based definition includes all kinds of transmissible information, many of which—from superstitions to folklore to songs—are genuine drivers of behavior (do you avoid walking under ladders?).
HC3’s premise is that the more people who are interacting with high-quality materials, or memes, the more powerful they become, and the likelihood that they will be adapted and implemented goes way up.
With its new clearinghouse, HC3 is bringing the best of the best social and behavior change communication (SBCC) products to the people who are implementing programs. The clearinghouse includes packages of campaign materials (like cue cards, radio spots, and a community facilitator’s guide). The materials are collected by the HC3 team; reviewed for qualities like user-friendliness, grounding in evidence, and available translations; and then made available for anyone to access, any time, from anywhere with an Internet connection.
A great example is Beware the Fataki!, a campaign against cross-generational sex in Tanzania. Roughly translated to Beware the Bomb!, the campaign compares an older, HIV-infected sugar daddy to an explosive in a community. After a few months of the multimedia campaign, 73% of people surveyed had been exposed to campaign’s messages, and 50% reported intervening in some way against a sugar daddy (read more on the Science Speaks blog).
The first step making a meme—something that people will remember, act on, and share—is to find a hook that isculturally relevant—like, up-to-the-second relevant. In South Africa, Johns Hopkins Health and Education in South Africa led a Peabody-winning campaign called Intersexions to reach young people about HIV. It focused on the question “Do you know your lovers’ lovers?” Intersexions wasn’t just popular for an SBCC TV spot: It was one of the most-watched shows in South Africa of any type.
As Donna Sherard from PSI said during the HC3 Learning Forum, SBCC practitioners know they “need to identify opportunities along someone’s path” in order to reach them with effective messages. HC3 is elevating this idea to reach SBCC program managers by curating memes they can adopt and adapt to achieve their SBCC and public health goals.