eHealth, Health Promotion, Mass Media, Research Findings , , , ,

Is Health Advertising Worth the Cost? You Be the Judge.

From a small printed flyer to a 30-second T.V. spot during the Super Bowl, there’s no question that advertising is expensive. And while there are many different forms of getting the word out, there are different reasons we advertise as well. It’s safe to say most advertising or marketing, particularly on a large scale, is done for competitive reasons—to boost sales and detract potential customers from going someplace else. But what about when the product being advertised isn’t actually for sale? What’s the goal of marketing something if you aren’t going to profit financially?

In the health communication field, organizations choose to advertise as a means of communicating something to the general public. This could be a health message to get tested for HIV or a celebrity testimonial to stop domestic violence. Either way, in health communication, the the “seller” or advertiser doesn’t stand to gain a profit on their effort in the financial sense, but rather, to promote healthy behaviors that in the long term, save lives. But these ads aren’t cheap. As health communicators, how do we know when the message we’re promoting is effective at producing change for the better?

That’s just what research economist Paul Shafer is trying to determine. A doctoral student in health policy and management, Shafer is working to determine the effectiveness of tobacco cessation advertisements from the Tips From Former Smokers campaign. The ads aired from March 4 to June 21, 2013. To determine effectiveness, Shafer and his colleagues looked at web traffic and determined the number of unique visitors the site had during the time the ads were aired.

The federally funded national tobacco education campaign resulted in the Centers for Disease Control’s (CDC) campaign website having over 900,000 total visits and nearly 1.4 million page views. There were an additional 660,000 unique visitors, meaning users returned to the site after their initial visit.

In his paper, published online Feb. 17, in the Journal of Medical Internet Research, Shafer seeks to demonstrate the relationship between the amount of advertising and the resulting numbers in web traffic. He attempts to show that by increased advertising leads to increased traffic, for both new and returning visitors, thus, implying the advertisements are effective at least getting people’s attention.

Shafer explains the uniqueness of his study is that he and his researchers were able to record the variation of media dose over time and across markets, as opposed to comparing aggregated traffic before, during, and after the campaign.

In addition, he and his team were able to determine fluctuation between the two types of ads, both aimed at providing resources to smokers desiring to quit. The ads used different tagging methods, such as a URL or a telephone hotline number, with results showing that the URL ads were more effective at driving users to the website, but that the hotline ads were also effective at increasing web views.

While Shafer’s study makes it difficult to determine the number of individuals who quit smoking as a direct result of the ads, the study does imply that such campaigns not only serve as a call to action, but also are effective at linking people to resources they would otherwise likely not know about. Finally, the results of the study imply the potential researchers have at more accurately forecasting the impact such ads will have at increasing web usage and interest in online resources that promote healthy behaviors.

So, aside from the fact that health campaigns can be quite expensive to implement, and there are no guarantees of success, with careful formative research and a targeted approach, such campaigns are valuable for the potential they have at impacting populations on a large scale at changing behaviors for good.