Why WHO has enlisted a superhero to slam diabetes

By Jenny Lei Ravelo 07 April 2016

Source: World Health Organization

Superheroes are back in a big way — on the big screen and in the international development scene. In their annual letter in February, Bill and Melinda Gates talked about super powers they wish they had. And now the World Health Organization is tapping the powers of caped crusaders in the hopes of putting a stop to the rise of diabetes worldwide.

From an estimated 108 million in 1980, diabetes prevalence has quadrupled to 422 million in 2014, according to WHO’s global report on diabetes, shared with Devex ahead of World Health Day. But if traditionally diabetes is mainly seen in adults, the report notes it is now increasingly found in children and youth — with access to food and beverages high in sugar content appearing to be a major culprit.

The alarming trend has government and aid organizations reacting in a variety of ways. Mexico, for example, implemented in 2014 an additional 10 percent tax on sugary drinks in the hopes of cutting down on the obesity rate, which increases the risk of developing diabetes and at the time stood at 33 percent among children and 70 percent among adults.

Both the rise in the global prevalence of diabetes and its growing prevalence in children and youth led WHO to take its own unique action. This World Health Day, the U.N. agency has devised a campaign to appeal to both youth and adults by centering it around the cross-generational appeal of superheroes, Marsha Vanderford, WHO’s director of communications based in Geneva, told Devex.

The campaign, which depicts child superheroes eating healthy and being active, boasts the taglines of “stay super” and “beat diabetes” and features images such as a caped and masked man with his fist down on diabetes “in that very active and combative way” that appeals to youth, she shared.

Diabetes and other noncommunicable diseases often associated with richer nations don’t often get as much attention as other infectious diseases, like HIV and AIDS, but deaths resulting from diabetes or high blood glucose levels are highest in low- and middle-income countries, according to WHO statistics.

WHO hopes packaging the campaign in this manner will encourage both children and adults to eat well and exercise while also highlighting the growing problem of diabetes worldwide.

Will superheroes save the day?

There’s no shortage of campaigns in global health that have made use of superheroes — or the idea of superheroes — to highlight a particular disease or public health issue. Earlier this year, in partnership with U.K. charity Ballboys, actor Ryan Reynolds as his movie character Deadpool did a public service announcement on testicular cancer, followed by another on breast cancer.

Local fictional heroes are also used in different parts of the world to highlight a particular health issue. An episode of Burka Avenger, a female fictional hero in Pakistan, for example, was used to bring attention to the problem of polio in the country.

But using cartoons or superheroes is not a typical WHO approach when highlighting health issues, according to Vanderford, though the aid agency has become more innovative in its approaches in recent years.

In May 2015, WHO made use of video animation to highlight the problem of illicit tobacco trade worldwide. And a few weeks ago, WHO’s regional office, the Pan American Health Organization based in Washington, D.C., also released a few videos featuring Sesame Street characters Elmo and Raya to teach children how to repel mosquitoes.

In the end however it comes down to whether the message was received and if it prompts the desired action. A 2004 HIV and AIDS prevention campaign in France made use of Superman and Wonder Woman as characters, depicting them in a hospital suffering from AIDS. But the posters only noted everyone should be concerned about AIDS without providing prevention suggestions — a misstep, according to a 2009 study that examined the campaign.The success of such an effort hinges on careful consideration of existing social norms and clear understanding of target audience, the study noted.

So how will WHO gauge the success of its diabetes campaign, especially when the goal is not as quantifiable as when fundraising? One way, Vanderford said, is through social media, looking at how many people posted, forwarded or responded to the campaign posters on Twitter or Facebook, for example. Another is by conducting a survey in which the health aid agency compares people’s perception about an issue before a campaign and their level of awareness and intention to change their behaviors after being exposed to the campaign materials.

Identifying the right type of messaging will always be a challenge, according to the communications director. Setting the objective and identifying whether a campaign is meant to change behavior or raise awareness is key. But the organization knows that one type of messaging doesn’t always appeal to every at-risk group.

“Knowing that materials that appeal to that target audience may not resonate as well with every audience who might be at risk, you choose the theme that does the most good, right? The one that either hits the target audience that you think is the most concerned or reaches the broadest group across different cultures and different ages, and different economic situations, different educational levels,” she said.

Have you used superheroes or the concept of superheroes in your campaigns? We’d like to hear how that went for your organization. Share your experience by leaving a comment below.

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About the author

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Jenny Lei Ravelo@JennyLeiRavelo

Jenny Lei Ravelo is a Devex senior reporter based in Manila. Since 2011, she has covered a wide range of development and humanitarian aid issues, from leadership and policy changes at DfID to the logistical and security impediments faced by international and local aid responders in disaster-prone and conflict-affected countries in Africa and Asia. Her interests include global health and the analysis of aid challenges and trends in sub-Saharan Africa.

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