AC360° Associate Producer
The swine flu hysteria appears to be fading – at least for now.
Despite news this week that a second person in the United States, Judy Trunnell of Texas, died while infected with the H1N1 virus, U.S. and Mexican officials hope the worst may be over.
The latest World Health Organization count puts the total number of confirmed cases at 1,516 in 22 countries and 30 deaths. Officials are still recommending that individuals take precautions, but in the U.S. schools were urged not to close. Newly appointed Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius said scientists believe that the flu strain is no more dangerous than seasonal flu, and that schools should act accordingly.
And flu fears, stirred up by daily updates from the WHO, the Obama administration and news media, now appear to be waning.
But even a few days of flu frenzy can be fodder for the most brazen of entrepreneurs.
Last week in New York, Alan Wolan – who runs a marketing agency – was taking his son to school on the subway, when he noticed a commuter wearing a surgical mask.
And he immediately had an idea.
Wolan’s firm, GoGorilla Media, works with advertisers to spot new trends and develop unique advertising strategies. So it’s no surprise that Wolan saw the swine flu hysteria as an opportunity, and the surgical mask as prime real estate for advertising.
Why not turn them into marketing tools?
“I’m in the business of coming up with novel ways to advertise,” Wolan told me, “We advertise on dollar bills, sidewalks. This is what I think of in my free time.”
At work, Wolan fired off a pitch to clients. It promised advertisers, “an opportunity to contribute to consumers’ health while alt the same time getting their message across in a lively, fun and sure-to-be-talked about way.”
“It was just plausible enough," said Wolan, “Kind of tongue-in-cheek, but I thought maybe one advertiser would be ‘kooky’ enough to jump on it.”
But the idea backfired.
Almost immediately, the inboxes of Wolan’s four sales representatives were flooded with complaints, calling the idea “insensitive.”
Less than five hours later, Wolan sent out an email apologizing to clients.
“In hindsight, the concept was not as clever as I had originally thought,” he wrote. “I did not intend for it to make light of the recent swine flu outbreak and regret any anguish we caused you.”
But even though the idea itself didn’t get much traction, Wolan’s company did.
Interest in GoGorilla Media has spiked, he says. “We’re getting a ton of hits to our website,” said Wolan. “And we’ve had many more RFPs (requests for business proposals) in the past few days than I can remember.”
Dan Gardner, author of “Risk: The Science and Politics of Fear,” isn’t surprised. He studies how humans perceive risk and how media and marketers can perpetuate fear. He says the swine flu panic is a classic example of how some industries capitalize on the public’s fears.
When the media report on something, Gardner says, it gets on the public radar. “And then ‘fear mongerers’ [those who spread the perception of fear] latch onto it and it’s in the public consciousness – which, in turn, encourages the media to do more reporting,” Gardner said. He calls it the feedback loop.
“We’re social animals,” says Gardner. “What other people are talking about matters enormously to how we prioritize things. When everyone stops on the sidewalk to look up, what do you do, you stop and look up.”
And Gardner says the H1N1 flu strain was a textbook case because it involved germs – which he says play into our deepest fears.
“It’s easy for marketers and media to capitalize on the fear of germs – or ‘germaphobia,’ because you don’t actually have to prove they’re there. Take a look at Purell – that product is solely based on a fear of germs.”
Since the outbreak of the swine flu virus, sales of Purell, the antibacterial hand sanitizer have spiked. And lately everywhere you turn there is someone carrying around a bottle of hand sanitizer. It’s become a fixture next to cash registers in some retail stores.
Lori Dolginoff, the Director of Communications for Johnson & Johnson – the company that owns Purell - said that she couldn’t release specific numbers for recent sales of Purell, but production has accelerated. “We have noticed a significant increase in demand from retailers,” she added.
ReStockit.com, one of the leading online retailers of cleaning, janitorial and office supplies, reports that Purell sales have increased more than 200 percent, while orders for liquid foam soap, masks and other germ-fighting products have also gone up.
A simple search on Amazon.com ranks surgical masks and hand sanitizers in the Top Seller lists for the health category. And the descriptions for some products have been changed to include phrases like, “Swine Flu protection.” Another example of quick-response marketing.
“We are seeing an increase in customers purchasing surgical masks and hand sanitizer since the flu outbreak,” said Megan Hurd, of Amazon.com. The top sellers for the past 10 days have been products such as masks and first aid kits which include “swine flu protection” in their descriptions.
Kimberly Clark says sales of its popular surgical mask "n95" have also spiked - and not just in areas actlually hit by the flu.
“We’ve seen demand for our n95 masks grow significantly on a global basis, mainly from clients like governmental agencies, hospitals and clinics.” Dickson says the company has ramped up its production to meet customer demand.
Ironically, the majority of manufacturing facilities that produce surgical masks are based in Mexico. Let’s hope its workers haven’t had to call in sick.
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