Category Archives: Everyday Life

Ottawa Public Health, Risk Communication & the Endoscopy Infection Scare

In a hastily organized media conference on Saturday, October 15, 2011, the City of Ottawa’s chief medical officer of health, Dr. Isra Levy, announced that a local, privately owned “non-hospital” medical clinic failed to follow proper infection control measures, resulting in the potential exposure of 6,800 patients to Hepatitis and HIV.

According to Dr. Levy, there was no evidence that a single patient had been infected as a result of treatment, and following consultation with infectious disease specialists he confirmed that the estimated rate of possible infection was “very low”:

  • 1 in 1 million for Hepatitis B
  • 1 in 50 million for Hepatitis C
  • 1 in 3 billion for HIV

On his Twitter feed Dan Gardner, author of the critically acclaimed book, Risk: The Science and Politics of Fear, described the risks cited in this case as “indescribably tiny…dwarfed by the risk of driving to the corner store.”

Despite the exceedingly low possibility of infection, the announcement by Ottawa’s health authority predictably generated outrage and intense public and media scrutiny.

Situation summary

Ottawa Public Health (OPH) first became aware of this clinic’s problems in July 2011, when the Ontario Ministry of Health and Long Term Care advised that an inspection by the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Ontario discovered infection prevention and sanitation protocols had not always been followed. It was then that OPH began its own investigation to assess the risk to public health and identify all patients who might be affected.

This involved a lengthy process of tracing several thousand patient records over a 10-year period. This volume of patient records, combined with restrictions on patient confidentiality set by Ontario privacy laws, made the task of informing those affected extremely difficult.

The final list of patients who may have been exposed to infection was not confirmed until Thursday, October 13th. On Friday, October 14th, OPH put its risk communication plan into effect. The first step involved finalizing the preparation of registered letters that would be immediately sent to all 6,800 patients. This included coordinating with the physician at the centre of the health scare, a professional obligation involving medical errors. Second, it involved notifying local physicians to ensure they would be able to address public demand for information and requests for blood testing. And it involved training as many as 50 public health nurses who would be redeployed from other units (e.g., sex education, home visits with new parents, etc.) to staff a call response hotline.

This plan was developed over the course of the health department’s three-month investigation. Given the possibility of an information leak, only a select number of key individuals were involved in the investigation and planning process.

A threatened media leak

Ottawa Public Health originally intended to hold its media conference on Tuesday, October 18th, at which time all information about the findings would have been disclosed. By this point, all affected patients would have been informed directly about what had occurred, physicians would have been prepared to respond to demands for information and testing, and the call response unit would have been up and running.

On the morning of Saturday, October 15th, Dr. Levy’s office was informed that a national news organization had become aware of the investigation and was preparing to break the story on the basis of inaccurate information.

This placed the public health authority in a difficult situation: the risk that a news report containing misinformation was real—certainly not unprecedented—and had the potential of creating vastly more harm than good.

OPH was faced with three options:

1.  Do nothing and respond to the report and the fallout that would ensue after the fact.
2.  Provide full disclosure of the situation, including identifying the name and address of the clinic and physician and the types of procedures which had placed patients at risk.
3.  Provide partial disclosure that would strike a balance between patient needs, the public interest and the capacity of the system to absorb increased demand for information, testing or treatment.

Communicating risk

The risks that kill people and the risks that upset people are completely different.Sandman, 2007

The health department scrambled to organize a media conference for later that afternoon. At this time, Dr. Levy announced what had occurred, confirmed that there were no known cases of anyone becoming ill and reported the very low numerical probability of infection. He acknowledged that some people might feel anxious or nervous about the announcement, and offered an explanation about what actions his office had put into place and would be following in the coming days, including a promise for new information early in the week.

To this extent, he acted in a manner consistent with the basic tenets of risk communication. He did not over-reassure, acknowledged that people would feel anxious about the announcement and described the discovery and response processes.

However, when pressed by journalists for a fuller disclosure of information, Dr. Levy refused to identify the name or location of the medical facility, the physician who operated it, or details about the patient population affected (i.e., children, adults, seniors, etc.).

This was a risky move for two major reasons.

First, it guaranteed that the health department would clash with the media over competing values: whereas the health department values only pertinent information in the interest of protecting public health, journalists value full disclosure, immediacy and thrive on controversy and outrage. Second, the decision to provide only very general information risked intensifying ambiguity and uncertainty, where the objective of risk communication is to lessen it. People aspire for control over their lives, even if they cannot change what might happen.

Ottawa Public Health called a second media conference on Monday, October 17th, where Dr. Levy disclosed all of the known information about:

  • where the breach had occurred (a private health clinic operated by Dr. Christiane Farazli on Carling Avenue in the city’s west end)
  • what caused the lapse in infection control (improper sanitation of equipment associated with the performance of endoscopies)
  • what patients should do next (contact their physician or the public health department’s call response centre to discuss whether they should be tested)

Media response

The news media’s framing of risk has more to do with its reproduction of moral outrage than with “scientific” notions of calculable risk. —Brown, Chapman & Lupton, 1996

Ottawa Public Health and Dr. Levy in particular, came under fire for the decision to provide only partial disclosure in its first media conference.

In a post to his Greater Ottawa blog on October 17thOttawa Citizen reporter David Reevely initially described Dr. Levy’s shift from partial to full disclosure as a “volte-face” move, a “classic emergency communications error,” and mused about whether the public health unit might be “sitting on something more shocking.” (He later revised his position, explaining the full context of Dr. Levy’s shift in tactics, characterizing it as a “judgment call…that makes a whole lot of sense when viewed from inside.”)

In a story published on October 18th, the Ottawa Sun did not report the low levels of infection risk but did note the “potentially fatal” nature of Hepatitis and HIV and cited demands from evidently uninformed patients for full disclosure: “You can’t keep the public in the dark…We have the right to know— it’s not fair…. Especially HIV, when there’s no treatment.”

On CTV National News, public relations consultant Barry McLoughlin characterized Dr. Levy’s decision to not release all of the information at once as “a mistake” that intensified public anxiety.

And in an October 18th editorial, the Ottawa Citizen blamed Dr. Levy for causing “undue public concern by mismanaging the release of the information.”

Risk communication: normative and situational perspectives

These criticisms and the demand they represent regarding full disclosure are consistent with normative recommendations for risk communication.

The World Health Organization defines risk communication as “an interactive process of exchange of information and opinion” among authorities, citizens, news media and other stakeholders.

In the past authorities typically acted on the basis of what they believed was the best course of action. Oftentimes this meant shielding the organization itself from blame. Risk communication hinges on therecognition that citizens deserve to be treated honestly, respectfully and with a view to enhancing their autonomy. The objective is to reduce uncertainty so that people will be capable of making informed decisions that affect their lives. Organizations achieve this objective, in part, by communicating as openly as possible.

Notwithstanding the normative appeal of full disclosure, the ability to report all information needs to be considered against a variety of situational factors, including the seriousness of the threat (i.e., the scientifically measured level of hazard or harm), the organizational resources required to manage the response that full disclosure will produce, and the conflict between patient rights to privacy and the public and media’s right to know.

Focus assessment

The focus on whether the release of partial information was sufficient needs to be determined in light of the probability of harm and in relation to the ability of the health system to absorb the effects of full disclosure.Given the low hazard for harm and the state of system readiness, and the fact that this event was not caused by the public health department itself, it’s not unreasonable that OPH proceeded cautiously in its first communication with the media and public.

The problem, however, is that this limited the flow of information to journalists, whose occupational values—more information is always better—and “nose for outrage” positions them in opposition.

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “scientists want data to be released when it’s ‘seasoned’—the media want fresh data now.” Consistent with previous cases of low hazard/high outrage events, the Ottawa health department and media differed not only in their treatment of information, but also their definitions of how to define what’s in the public interest. The health department’s partial disclosure not only strained its relationship with the media; it also kept the wider public under-informed and in a state of uncertainty.

Risk communication conclusion

The question of when to release risk information is a serious one, not to be taken lightly. It is vitally important to communicate openly and to communicate early. As the CDC advises, public health authorities need to “be first, be right, be credible.” And according to the World Health Organization, “the benefits of early warning outweigh the risks,” even when faced with uncertainty and the possibility of error.

Although prescriptive recommendations such as these are important in guiding decision-making about disclosure, such decisions cannot be made by virtue of normative standards alone.

Rather, as argued here, they must be made in relation to situational factors. They need to be made in a context that acknowledges:

  1. It guaranteed that the health department would clash with the media over competing values.
  2. The resources that will be required to manage the system impacts such announcements tend to produce.
  3. The legislative environment that balances patient privacy rights against the rights of the public to know

In this case, it’s possible that a full disclosure of all available information in its first media conference would have created undue pressure on local physicians, public health clinics and hospital emergency rooms. Keeping in mind that risk is about both uncertainty and possibility, the scenario of an overwhelmed healthcare system surely played out in the health department’s decision making.

It’s important to note that this risk event was not caused by the health department itself, but by a private clinic regulated by the province of Ontario. Ottawa Public Health responded to an investigation by the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Ontario, and to an alert by the Ontario government. It proceeded with its own investigation and a strategy of public disclosure only when it became evident that the other agencies involved would not do so. The decision to provide only partial disclosure was made on the basis of the health department’s interpretation of the scientific evidence relating to infection risk. That this decision wasallegedly forced by a news organization threatening to break the story with erroneous information, is significant in terms of assessing the response.

Ottawa Public Health acted appropriately in balancing the needs of patients in relation with system capacity, but only to the extent that this event involved infinitesimally low levels of health risk. Had the probability of infection been higher, or had there been evidence of patients who had actually been infected, its response (and this assessment) would likely have been different.

Response problematic in one area: social media

The OPH response is problematic in one other way.

In the most recent edition of his book Ongoing Crisis CommunicationW. Timothy Coombs describes the “increasingly important” role of social media for issues management and as a channel for responding to public questions and sharing information. It’s unclear to what extent social media sites are used by Ottawa Public Health to scan or monitor media and public discourse; but for the dissemination of public information sites have been used only sparingly.

For example, (at the time of writing this post) the health department’s under-used Tumblr account does not contain a single update about the infection scare, although it’s been used for other health information purposes during this time. And while its Facebook page and Twitter account have posted synced updates to a low number of fans (363) and followers (5,000+), the fact that both were dormant in the 36-48 hours following the initial media conference suggests social media outreach represents a low priority within the health department’s communication plan.

Given that the period immediately following a public announcement is a critical time when reporters and members of the public are discussing an event and forming their initial impressions, social media platforms present an important space not only for assessing the tone of the public conversation, but for also correcting misinformation if and when it occurs.

Risk events such as the Ottawa endoscopies infection scare can be disorienting because of the intense feelings of uncertainty, anxiety and fear they produce. But to the extent that these situations are potentially destabilizing, they also afford unique opportunities to think critically about how we discuss and practice risk communication.

** This post originally appeared as a guest column on PR Conversations. I thank Judy Gombita and Heather Yaxley for the invitation and their community of readers for the excellent comments and feedback.

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Filed under Crisis Communication, Emergency Communication, Everyday Life, Health Issues, Health Promotion, Public Health, Public Relations, Risk, Social Media

A Nation of Shopkeepers?

With the climate talks now monopolized by senior political officials, and NGOs essentially excluded from the process of consultation, we decided to hit the streets of Copenhagen to gauge the reactions of ordinary Danes to the do or die event happening in their midst. But on a bitterly cold and damp winter day, the prospect of staying outside for more than a few minutes was simply too unappealing. The result? Talk to people working in the various stores lining the main route from our flat to the central train station about their thoughts on climate change, COP15 and the violent reactions of police to recent protests, particularly yesterday’s melee at the Bella Centre where the official meetings are taking place.

Reactions were mixed on some of these items but less so on others. And some of the responses came to us as a surprise, while others were probably expected. It is certainly the case that the climate change conference “is all anyone is talking about right now,” said a manager of a women’s clothing shop, a women in her mid-50s.”It’s entirely unavoidable,” said another, the owner of a local groceria, “unless you choose to shut off the TV.”

The biggest point of agreement was that although the police’s rough tactics have been discomforting, they have been mostly justified in using heavy force. Video footage from various protests and police raids of activists over the course of the last two weeks leave little doubt about the willingness or ability of the Danish police to use strong-arm tactics against (mainly youthful) activists. Check out the clips from my previous post, and here are two new ones:

Source: EUX TV

Source: CYDCopenhagen

If the local retail sector is anything to go by, the heavy-handed police tactics seem to be accepted as both inevitable and unavoidable, particularly against those who are seen as “trouble-making outsiders,” as one merchant put it. As for the conference, those we spoke to saw it chiefly as an inconvenience at best, and disruptive at worst. Business has been bad because of the global recession, but at this time of year there should at least be a faint hope of an uptick in sales as people warmed to the season of gift giving.

“Why not hold it in January, after the Christmas season when we hope to do significant business,” said the owner of a local flower shop, a man in his late-30s.

“My customers are scared and not spending any money. This conference has been a nightmare for my sales,” exclaimed another.

“All I care about is paying for my electricity, paying my staff their salary, and providing for my kids. I have no time to think of anything else,” stated a third.

And the issue of climate change itself? Danes have an international reputation for being easy-going, compassionate, tolerant, and (most environmentally telling of all) bicycle loving. Even in sub zero temperatures with a generous coating of snow on the ground, Copenhagen is full of cyclists riding to work, to shop, and to school.

If nothing else, this should be a nation of people keenly interested in climate change and its mitigation. Although the issue did spark some interest, for the most part the general view from the petite bourgeois class is that people have enough on their hands worrying about getting by and making a living on a daily basis. “Honestly, I don’t give it very much thought,” said the clerk of a high end furniture store, a man in his late-20s. “Of course, it’s important to be worried about the climate, but we have other problems.”

As for concern about the impacts of climate change on the developing world (a dominant theme of the talks)? It barely registered on the radar. For us this was both surprising and disquieting, but it was a consistent thread in the discussions nevertheless.

When Napoleon Bonaparte dismissed the English as a nation of shopkeepers, he meant to suggest that because they were fixated on short term financial gain, they would not offer much resistance when push came to shove. But as he learned to his regret, shopkeepers can be highly resistant.

Although we are careful to avoid generalizing from these discussions to the broader population, there’s a potential lesson to be learned for the climate change movement and their supporters in the political class: it is important to continue making the case that climate change is fundamentally a moral and social justice issue that has far-reaching and dangerous consequences, particularly for vulnerable people in the developing world. However, it is also crucial to pay attention to the concerns, economic or otherwise, of ordinary citizens in those countries that will bear the lion’s share of the financial cost of fixing a problem that they may well only be partially responsible for creating. The longer climate change is treated as an either/or issue, the longer it will take to mobilize the domestic support in those countries that have the power and ability to make a difference.

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Filed under Activism, climate change, Environmentalism, Everyday Life, Politics

The Yes Men Strike Again!

There is a tendency among scholars interested in media and social activism to focus on how social movements make instrumental use of mass media to enhance organization profile, to change public policy, to foster a sense of collective identity, or a combination of some or all of these things. Yet, before today’s media savvy activists were holding news conferences, the most accessible and fundamental mode of radical expression was public speech, and oftentimes ironic and satirical speech.  

Few activists are as effective in blending the spirit and practice of satire and radical rhetoric as the Yes Men, a group of pranksters who have successfully impersonated and thus “corrected” the identities of the rich and powerful. Posing as ExxonMobil and National Petroleum Council (NPC) representatives, Yes Men activists delivered an outrageous keynote speech to 300 oil barons at GO-EXPO, Canada’s largest oil conference, held at Stampede Park in Calgary, in June 2007. In November 2004, taking on the persona of a Dow Chemical executive, Yes Men pranksters conducted a live video interview with BBC News announcing that at long last the company was admitting its negligence in the 1984 Bhopal disaster that immediately claimed the lives of 3,000 people and contributed to the deaths of at least 15,000 more.

After a year of quiet, the Yes Men have struck again, and this time at the heart of the American media machine. New Yorkers awoke this morning to news that the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq war had ended, that the U.S. government had established national public health care and education, abolished corporate lobbying and placed a cap on CEO salaries. The Yes Men arranged to have 1.6 million fake copies of The New York Times printed and delivered to several key locations across the Big Apple, where volunteers recruited through the prankster’s website were on hand to distribute the news.

The Yes Men’s pranks are a prime example of culture jamming, a form of radical speech which involves efforts to disrupt existing transmissions of information. Using a combination of hoax and banditry, the Yes Men endeavour to trip up, jam or block what they see as the overwhelming power structures that govern and control what we think and how we feel. In contrast to other media activists who wish to deny and denounce with a view of negating the cultural influence of mainstream media, pranksters like the Yes Men prefer to play with and subvert the hegemonic power of conventional thought. As Christine Harold puts it in her excellent paper on culture jamming, pranking is more about the “artful proliferation of messages, a rhetorical process of intervention and invention, which challenges the ability of corporate discourses to make meaning in predictable ways.”

While culture jamming is often celebrated as a postmodern phenomenon rooted in the Situationist Movement of the late 1960s, there is something quite medieval about the Yes Men’s use of irreverent laughter. In his notoriously grotesque novel Gargantua and Pantagruel, published in the 16th century, Francois Rabelais reproduced and valorized the speech of the village marketplace, a language quite remote from the purities of the literary intelligentsia, clergy and courts of the time. With mockery and humour, Rabelais celebrated those moments when the solemnities of religion and authority were ritually inverted by the common folk. Writing about Rabelais and his world, Mikhail Bakhtin said of laughter that it “clarified man’s consciousness and gave him a new outlook on life. This truth was ephemeral; it was followed by the fears and oppressions of everyday life, but from these brief moments another unofficial truth emerged, truth about the world.” 

 


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Greening Corporate Reputation

Canada’s agenda-setting newspaper The Globe & Mail yesterday memorialized Rachel Carson’s book Silent Spring (Houghton Mifflin, 1962) as one of the world’s 50 greatest reads, praising its role in stimulating greater public understanding about science and helping to shape the modern environmental movement. I’ve been thinking a lot about the book lately, with 2 graduate students working on issues relating to environmental communication and one having just completed such a study. I read the book for the first and only time in a social and environmental studies course in high school. 

So it was more than a little serendipitous that within minutes of reading the review, a Google Alert came thundering through the ether to publicize two new reports: the first is the 2008 Corporate Social Responsibility Index, released by the Center for Corporate Citizenship and Reputation Institute at Boston College. Using data collected for Reputation Institute’s 2008 Global Pulse Study, the report evaluates the top 50 U.S. corporations in terms of their commitments to sustainable economic growth and finds that corporate governance, ethics and transparency are increasing in their importance to overall corporate reputation. An important caveat is that the data were gathered long before the market meltdown; as some analysts have argued, the downturn in the economy will be a true test of corporate commitments to sustainable business practice. 

The second report called MapChange was released by the Vancouver-based green marketing and brand management firm Change (the full report can be downloaded here). MapChange is a “perceptual mapping tool” that assesses how committed the top brands in Canada are to the environment, and how committed consumers think they are. In short, it allows brand managers to assess a range of possible reputational threats, whether these derive from specific stakeholder concerns, such as when activists demand that global corporations change their supply chain practices to limit carbon emissions, or expectation gaps, such as when companies fail to communicate progressive environmental practices to stakeholders, thus falling short of consumer expectations.

As the consultants at Change make clear, in the world of branding reality is a social construction: “what is real is only what is perceived to be real.” Communication is thus central not only to effective marketing but also activist criticism of brand performance.

Indeed, the report indicates that better action doesn’t necessarily equal better perception. General Motors has been regularly criticized for its sustainability efforts, but despite performing better in Actual Sustainability practices than its competitor Toyota, the latter has attained by far the highest Perceived Sustainability score (must be all those Prius product placements on hit cable shows like Six Feet Under and Weeds). The report also shows that some brands have benefitted from a “halo effect” — consumers of Apple products perceive the company’s sustainability practices to be much better (5th overall) than their actual performance (14th overall) — while others, such as Nike, have not been able to overcome the bad public images they accrued from past behaviour, despite progressive efforts to improve business practice (Nike ranked 17th on Perceived Sustainability, despite being 5th on Actual Sustainability).

It’s unclear what the future holds for sustainable business practices. The Wall Street Journal reports that on the heels of the market meltdown in the U.S., oil prices have plummeted because of fears about a global recession, a move unlikely to stimulate reductions in consumer demand for fossil fuels and thus the pressure needed to keep corporations focused on the triple bottom line.  In a recent column in The New York Times, Thomas Friedman writes that we should invest all bailout profits in green infrastructure to stimulate sustainable technology. Yet, if we believe the Financial Times, the economic crisis has made consumers worldwide less likely to spend their money on green products.

All of these mixed signals mean many things, not the least of which is that if you are in the business of green marketing, there is going to be a lot of confused corporations looking for strategic counsel and a lot of environmental activists with their radars intently focused.

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Filed under Corporate Social Responsibility, Everyday Life, Greenwashing, Uncategorized

iWatch: The Power of Surveillance in your Pocket

War is Peace. Freedom is Slavery. Ignorance is Strength.

In the discourse about surveillance, the Big Brother trope is king.  Popular culture provides us with recognizable scripts in which to locate our own anxieties and uncertainties about the present, even though the reality of everyday life is often more complex and paradoxical than can be explained by way of simple metaphors. Ongoing revelations about state-sponsored surveillance of the citizenry also signify that top-down relations of watching and monitoring are alive and well. Think of the Bush administration’s wiretapping of American citizens (see James Bamford’s excellent piece in The Atlantic, “Big Brother is Listening”), or recent reports that the British government is seeking to expand its surveillance capabilities to include monitoring of personal telephone, Internet use and email, all in the name of the global war on terror. 

Despite the popularity with which we link discussions about surveillance to Orwellian nightmares, the practices and technologies that enable us to watch and be watched are diverse. Individualized modes of surveillance have been around for some time and have become ubiquitous: computer cookies, GPS in our cars, dietary regimes linked to online weight management services, and Health Watch initiatives in certain drug store chains are just a few examples of surveillance systems that do not immediately correspond with the notion that the powerful few are keeping watch over powerless who are many.

Despite the proliferation of personalized monitoring schemes, surveillance has arguably never been so chic. Thanks to enabling software developed by the Australian technology company, Zylotech, and the always creative and clever folks at Apple, you can now become your own private Ministry of Truth. While the U.S. and British cases noted above reveal that vertical relations of surveillance remain firmly entrenched, lateral surveillance now has a new look and feel. With the ‘One-Touch’ Smart G camera technology, Zylotech offers consumers secure surveillance of their personal property via their iPhone

According to Zylotech CEO, Nicholas Sikiotis, the product (which will retail for approximately $700) allows users to enable their iPhone to monitor geographical spaces (e.g. personal property) in real time. Using a “one-touch” icon request via the phone’s main menu, users can receive instant camera or pre-determined video snapshots of their homes or businesses – ever wonder if the mail carrier is snooping or if the nasty neighbour’s dog is treating your hibiscus like a fire hydrant? Now you can see with just a slide and click.

It’s true that personalized surveillance systems (particularly for home monitoring) is not new, and the Zylotech invention isn’t the creepiest example of how we are all becoming approximations of Big Brother. This article from the Chicago Sun Times reports that a Chicago man recently became the first to willingly link up his private home surveillance network to the city’s 911 emergency center after city officials publicly offered citizens the chance to participate in a creating “a panoramic view of disaster scenes.” 

Nevertheless, the Zylotech enhanced iPhone may very well be the first example of a consumer product that combines the power of entertainment, immediate access to people and information and the capacity to monitor and watch. It’s time we flip Orwell on his head and take up Mark Crispin Miller’s argument, now 20 years old: “as you watch, there is no Big Brother out there watching you. Big Brother is you, watching.”

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FLICKr and Counter-Surveillance: Resistance or Reification?

Cory Doctorow posts on Boing Boing that two civil society organizations – The Open Rights Group and No2ID – are calling for British citizens to snap pictures of moments or things in their daily lives which capture the expanding nature of the surveillance society. The pics are to then be uploaded to a Flickr site.

Here’s an excerpt from The Open Rights Group’s website:

On 11 October, No2ID and the Open Rights Group will make a live collage of the images you’ve taken in a prominent location in London (to be confirmed), to celebrate Freedom Not Fear Day 2008.

Freedom not Fear is an international day of action for democracy, free speech, human rights and civil liberties, and events to celebrate these central tenets of a just society will be taking place all over the world.

Here’s how you can help:

  1. Spot something that embodies the UK’s wholesale transformation into the surveillance society/database state. Subjects might include your local CCTV camera(s), or fingerprinting equipment in your child’s school library
  2. Snap it
  3. Upload it to Flickr and tag it “FNFBigPicture” – please use an Attribution Creative Commons license* (this will allow them to have the pictures reproduced in news coverage)
  4. That’s it!

The rationale behind the project is to raise awareness about surveillance creep in our daily lives and presumably to call for more active forms of resistance. Yet it may also serve as a powerful tool of reification, the notion that in looking at objects we forget about the human relations that necessitated their emergence. Reification is problematic because when we objectify relations among subjects, we render the latter passive and determined, while investing the object(s) with mysterious formational powers. The danger of reification will likely be addressed for those who attend the event if we rightly assume that the groups behind it will talk about more than just the photographs but use them as a launching site for wider critical discussion. Yet for the millions more who are likely to experience this project only via Flickr it may have rather unintended consequences.  

Surveillance involves a complex configuration of political, economic, cultural and social practices with human relations behind them. The introduction of more CCTV cameras in public areas, wiretapping by the state, data mining by ISPs to detect suspicious behaviour or consumer preferences, data mining by pharmacists to protect us from adverse drug affects, or my use of Google alerts to help monitor the 24/7 news environment: all of these technologies and practices stem from the actions and decisions of human beings; without unpacking the dynamics in these social relations we risk intensifying the forms of alienation that have been generated by the ever-presence of surveillance in our lives.

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Purple Pills and Puffery

This post is about promotionalism and the pharmaceutical industry. Some of the ideas come from a paper I wrote a couple of years ago (This Ad May be Bad for Your Health) published as a chapter in my book Communication in Question. I was compelled to revisit some of the ideas that informed the paper after listening this afternoon to the latest podcast from White Coat, Black Art – Dr. Brian Goldman’s always stimulating and informative program on CBC Radio 1. You can stream the podcast at the CBC site here.

The section of the program that most intrigued me was Goldman’s Q&A with the vice-president of creative development at the Brand Institute, which bills itself as “the world’s premier healthcare, consumer and business to business (B2B) brand identity consultancy.” Among other services, the firm develops catchy names for drugs and the conditions they are designed to alleviate thereby helping pharmaceutical companies build brand equity and value. According to the executive interviewed, a number of important considerations go into the process of naming a new drug: the name should highlight the product’s unique selling features, it should include embedded concepts that can evoke emotion, it should be memorable and easily pronounced in multiple languages, and it should have a “pleasing tonality”. A case in point is the drug Lunesta, the popular prescription sleep aid – it connotes lunar images and has a soothing tonality that also affirms the product’s “inherent therapeutic properties.”  Roland Barthes must be spinning in his grave.

While you’re waiting for the podcast to download, here’s some promo from the Brand Institute’s website, broadcast as a news story a year or so ago on Fox Business and hosted on the agency’s YouTube page:

Of course, this story is about more than semiotics. Drug advertising is big business. The global pharmaceutical industry is the world’s most profitable stock market sector, with annual revenues exceeding $600 billion. Pharmaceutical sales in North America topped a staggering $265 billion in 2005, and in the United States, where 90% of the continental market is located, big pharma spent close to $5 billion that year on advertising alone. Millions of dollars can be made providing valuable treatment for genuinely sick people, but billions more can be made by convincing healthy people that there may be something wrong with them. Manufacture a risk, cultivate anxiety and deliver an easy treatment. It’s ontological security and a cool buzz in a bottle. 

For communication scholars, there are plenty of reasons to be concerned, which I outline in the aforementioned book chapter. Most importantly, advertising is about more than just the promotion of goods or services that are designed to inform and educate consumers and pad the corporation’s revenues. It is a cultural technology that incorporates images, persons, and commodities into what is often a seamless discourse that blurs the distinction between products and people. The rhetoric of drug advertising encourages individuals to focus increasingly on their minds and bodies as sites of real or potential disease that demand constant attention and administration. Some argue that this serves as an effective tool of governance and as a potential technology for social control. It surely this demands more vigilance on the part of consumers to resist the promotional efforts of drug companies and advertisers, but it also requires more robust state regulation to protect citizens.

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Filed under Everyday Life, Health Promotion, Lifestyle Risks, Politics, Popular Culture