Marketer extraordinaire Seth Godin pushed out a visionary post on his blog this week, predicting that politics in the United States would increasingly be tilted away from the candidates with money (who therefore have the resources to make massive ad buys) and toward the candidates with personality: the outliers, the angry, the rebels.
The logic is simple. People don’t passively consume media anymore. We are a national seekers, and the stuff we seek is interesting. The winning candidate of the future will hold our attention better than his or her opponent, and holding our attention has precious little to do with TV spots:
When attention is scarce and there are many choices, media costs something other than money. It costs interesting. If you are angry or remarkable or an outlier, you’re interesting, and your idea can spread. … Thus, as media moves from TV-driven to attention-driven, we’re going to see more outliers, more renegades and more angry people driving agendas and getting elected.
Seth’s point, though, can be extrapolated beyond politics, and that’s where I get nervous. In the arena of health, well-vetted ideas face heavy competition from engaging but unproven theories. Autism is the classic example: it is far interesting and far more compelling to listen to Jenny McCarthy tell her personal narrative than to chronicle the frustrating search for answers going on in windowless labs around the world. But it goes beyond autism. It’s the anecdotal water-cooler talk about how a co-worker got influenza right after a flu shot. Or it’s the rush to suggest that our increasing understanding of the connection between XMRV and chronic fatigue means that patients should jump at the chance to take powerful HIV medications in advance of any human testing.
But in those cases — and thousands more — paying attention to the more “interesting” narratives around health risks missing out on the drier, more mundane — but hugely more important — realities. Most people might prefer to read about Suzanne Somers than Archie Cochrane, but if you wheel me into the hospital, I want to be damn sure that my doctor has JAMA on his desk, not US Weekly.
This is the reason that copywriting about health is so important. Those of us who communicate have an absolute obligation to be clear and accurate. But, increasingly, there is also a need to provide color and personality (within those bounds of clarity and accuracy); overly corporate healthspeak or overly clincial healthspeak is too easy to ignore in a world of a million different media options. To beat back the Jenny McCarthys of the world, we need a few more aspiring Lewis Thomases or Atul Gawandes: writers who can be both true to the facts and — to echo Seth — interesting.