Will the Democrats identify their Dr. Koop?
Inspired by then–U.S. Surgeon General C. Everett Koop’s aggressive stance, the public campaign against smoking during the 1980s took an increasingly strident tone and had war-like imagery, as this poster by a private publicity film company illustrates.

Will the Democrats identify their Dr. Koop?

A multifaceted anti-smoking campaign led to the percentage of Americans who smoked dropping by 33 percent in the 1980s. Democrats urgently need a similar, strategic, unified media campaign designed to counter misinformation and denial about what’s at stake in November.

SAXTONS RIVER — When the late Dr. C. Everett Koop issued his first surgeon general's report about the dangers of smoking in 1982 the media reported it widely. As a result, Koop realized that publicity and persuasion were effective tools in promoting healthier behavior.

In 1984, on the 20th anniversary of an earlier Surgeon General's Report on Smoking and Health, Koop launched the Campaign for a Smoke-Free America by 2000.

That campaign against cigarette smoking built on the momentum started by the earlier report, which resulted in Congress requiring health warning labels and the 1970 ban on television advertising.

A multifaceted anti-smoking campaign led to the percentage of Americans who smoked dropping by 33 percent over the course of Koop's tenure.

When Koop positioned smoking as a public health issue, he was doing what media advocacy professionals call “framing.”

When he talked about how many people would die of smoking-related cancer, he didn't just use big numbers. He added, “that's the equivalent of [X number] of jumbo jets full of passengers crashing in a year.” That's called “creative epidemiology.”

And when he told a story about someone dying from smoking, he related it to a real person in the community where he was speaking, juxtaposing his message on a situation that audiences could relate to.

Koop didn't change the culture of smoking by himself. Many communication professionals contributed to the success of the anti-smoking campaign that led to behavior change and altered social norms nationally.

Working together, they mounted one of the most successful media advocacy efforts ever undertaken. It's now a case study of a methodology that changed health behavior, safety belt use, forest fire prevention, and more.

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Media advocacy is the strategic use of mass media to advance public policy and address political issues that have important and harmful social consequences. It's rooted in community action and shifts attention from an individual's attitudes and behavior to greater awareness and collective change, often relating to the political environment.

Grounded in communication theory, media advocacy has proven to be an effective means of effecting change for everyone's benefit.

Another method in behavior-change communication is social marketing. It derives from a key question asked in the 1960s: “Why can't you sell brotherhood like you sell soap?”

That query led to a new communications objective: the “selling” of socially beneficial ideas and practices that could change behavior to improve all aspects of life, from protecting the environment, to making healthier lifestyle choices, to affecting policy.

The first objective in social marketing and media advocacy is raising awareness about a problem. Persuading people that something must change follows, leading to individuals and communities taking action, whether it's stopping smoking, joining a Green movement, or voting out a bad president.

* * *

As we approach the election in the aftermath of Senate impeachment deliberations, and as we face continuing support for Donald Trump, voter-suppression attempts, and likely cyber interference, Democrats urgently need a strategic, unified media campaign designed to counter Fox News and other sources of misinformation, as well as denial about what's at stake in November.

Unified media advocacy messages for TV talk show pundits, social media posts, blogs, opinion pieces and editorials, news stories, and political ads all need to employ the same pithy sound-bites, display the same effective visuals, and use recognizable symbols and tag lines.

They must offer solid facts; creative epidemiology; localized messaging; credible sources; and charismatic, trusted spokespeople who put a human face on Trumpian tragedies.

A media advocacy campaign must focus solely on the threats the Trump administration presents. Democratic candidates, whose policies don't differ much, should stop repeating narrow, superficial one-liners on health policy, free education, and the economy.

The spotlight must always be on the lies, illegalities and dangers of Donald Trump's corrupt administration, told in human terms:

More than 18,000 people are held at any one time by ICE. Over 12,000 of them are traumatized children, many separated from their parents, who will never recover emotionally. That's equivalent to sixty jumbo jets full of asylum seekers. Here is just one of their stories. ...

The fires that ravaged Australia and destroyed a part of that continent larger than Rhode Island signal irreversible environmental disaster if we don't act immediately to address global warming. The damage done by the fires will continue long after the flames are extinguished. Here's what science tells us...: (And still the president denies climate change.)

Joe Smith died at age 34 because he couldn't afford his insulin. The Trump administration should be ashamed, and held accountable.

There are myriad issues like these, from polluted waters, to food safety, to plundered national parks, begging for heightened awareness and voter turnout. Raising that awareness and promoting action falls to Democratic messengers. If Democrats fail to provide strategic messages that hit home, voters won't know what's been happening under the radar because of the Trump administration, nor will they realize how it affects them.

* * *

Focused media campaigns expose neglected issues. They discredit opponents and humanize compelling facts. They reveal lies. In today's media environment where brevity is essential, a knockout sound bite - pithy, memorable, and repeatable - can have a huge impact. So can one whopper of a photo.

Designing a media advocacy campaign calls for seasoned professionals. Still, “Once you 'get' media advocacy, you have to do it or you have to live with the fact that you're not doing everything you can to make a difference,” as one media advocate put it.

Those words couldn't be more applicable as we face the great urgency of protecting democracy and ensuring a future grounded in the wisdom of our Constitution.

Surely, Democrats can identify their Dr. Koop in time.

The question is: Will they?

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