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Do Disease Awareness Campaigns Really Work?


It's National Wear Red Day. Do you know what that means?

Are you wearing red today? You should be. At least that's what the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI) and the American Heart Association (AHA) are hoping. The two groups have spent millions of dollars to raise awareness of heart disease in women through their The Heart Truth campaign and the Go Red For Women campaign, respectively.

February 5 is National Wear Red Day, a "holiday" created by the NHLBI, a government agency, and AHA, an independent non-profit, to help create awareness around the number one killer of women -- heart disease.

But should government entities and non-profits be spending in the high six figures annually to promote a cause or should those dollars be spent on lifesaving research? Well, it's all in the numbers.

The Heart Truth campaign began in 2001 by NHLBI when the agency awarded the work to Ogilvy Public Relations Worldwide, a branch of WPP Group (WPPGY), in a three-year contract worth $5.5 million. That contract was renewed in 2005 for $5.8 million and again in 2008 for $6.4 million. After a year of market research studying women 40 to 60 years old and their awareness of heart disease, the campaign found that only 34% of women were aware of the disease as a threat to women. The campaign created the Red Dress as a symbol of heart disease and has leveraged that symbol to create awareness.

Meanwhile, the Go Red For Women campaign began in 2004 by the American Heart Association and was awarded to Edelman, one of the largest independent public relations firms. The campaign was designed to raise further awareness about the risks of heart disease and also uses the red dress as a tool to promote the campaign. Throughout its tenure, the campaign has garnered big-name corporate sponsors like Merck (MRK), Pfizer (PFE), and Macy's (M). Unlike The Heart Truth campaign, Go Red targets women 35 to 54 years old.

Put aside the fact that each of these campaigns are award-winning -- both have won prestigious honors from various PR associations for the work -- and look at the results.

NHLBI's The Heart Truth campaign claims to have increased awareness in women to 69% in 2009. Since the campaign's inception, more than 40 corporate relationships were formed, including partnerships with Coca-Cola (KO), 8th Continent, Celestial Seasonings (HAIN), and Cheerios (GIS), conservatively valued at $65 million, according to a study featured in Social Marketing Quarterly in the fall of 2008.

Other aspects of the corporate partnerships include national newspaper insert advertisements with a combined circulation of 590 million, the distribution of more than 2.2 million Red Dress pins, and print advertising placements by media and corporate partners totaling more than $4 million. Since the campaign's launch in 2002, media impressions steadily increased each year and totaled more than 2.1 billion by the beginning of 2008 in magazines like Glamour, Women's Day, Newsweek, and Time.

The Go Red For Women campaign boasts that one-third of women who join its initiative through its website have lost weight, 55% have increased their exercise, and one-third of the women have talked to their doctors about developing a heart health plan. The campaign generated 14 billion media impressions through the end of 2009, with 96% of women taking action after registering on the website. More than 12,800 companies and 150 national landmarks participated in National Wear Red Day and Cities Go Red since its inception. The campaign website was relaunched in February 2007, tripling its traffic in the first month to nearly 9 million hits.

Heart disease, often seen as a "man's disease," is the number one killer of women in the US. It affects one in three women, while breast cancer affects one in 30 women. More women die from cardiovascular disease than the next five causes of death combined.
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