Tuesday, September 30, 2014


Credit: "Ring-a-round-a roses" by Artist Jessie Willcox Smith (1863–1935), published 1912; Wikimedia Commons 

By Anne Zeiser, 
President and CEO, 
Azure Media

Transmedia Marketing--From Film and TV to Games and Digital Marketing 
(Focal Press 2015)

Current generations may not know that the innocent childhood game “Ring-Around-the-Rosie” is a cultural holdover to the devastation that diseases like the Great Plague and the Black Death wreaked on human populations. Even in the 20th century, infectious diseases were such a dominant threat to the quality of life that Jonas Salk became an unintended folk hero for developing a safe polio vaccine. Today, most people don’t remember the heartbreaking and sometimes lethal effects of not vaccinating, hence can’t see their own vital role in public health. 

By 2000, the Center for Disease Control (CDC) declared a public health victory, that measles, which had once infected 3 to 4 million people and killed 500 yearly, had been eliminated in the U.S. through effective vaccines and public health systems. Yet in the spring of 2014, the CDC reported thatmeasles was back, placing it at its highest level in the U.S. in 20 years. This past June, California declared an epidemic of whooping cough – life-threatening for babies – with 800 cases reported in two weeks alone. The CDC and the California Department of Public Health were declaring public health failures.

You and I own that failure. Each of us is responsible for our collective health – a foundational principle of public health. With highly infectious diseases like measles, 95%of a community must be vaccinated to maintain “herd immunity” – the tenuous threshold of vaccination required to prevent outbreaks, thereby protecting the most vulnerable who can’t vaccinate, including the very young and the immune-suppressed. (When I was undergoing chemotherapy and wore a mask in public, I was grateful to each of you who vaccinated.)  When the vaccination rate drops below that threshold by just a few percentage points in a population, this safeguard can break down, often resulting in pockets of outbreaks. That’s happened within our borders – from California and New York to Ohio and Maine. And that can happen in your community when too few people vaccinate.

Science continually demonstrates that when vaccination rates drop, herd immunity collapses and outbreaks re-emerge and travel. There were 30,000 cases of measles in Europe in 20112,000 cases in the UK in 2012; and, there are almost 600 measles cases in 21 states in the U.S.now.  Public health policy is set based on that science and relies on you and me to protect vulnerable populations – which could be your newborn niece, your brother undoing cancer treatment, or your aging grandmother. Those with immature or compromised immune systems are even more vulnerable to vaccine-preventable diseases than healthy individuals. By not vaccinating, we’re all but placing them back in the era of the Bubonic Plague. Is that humane or socially responsible?

 Outbreaks in the developing world are an understandable byproduct of political strife or inadequate infrastructure. But here in the developed world, where we’ve had the science to hold these vaccine-preventable diseases at bay for decades, why are outbreaks of measles, mumps, and whooping cough back in the news?

Because of huge cultural differences between the 20th and 21st centuries. As we’ve enjoyed high levels of health, we’ve also lost our understanding of the urgency of public health. Preventative health is invisible. It’s hard to communicate until it's lost and its effects become visible. For some, then it’s too late. These outbreaks aren’t due to the lack of medical know-how or resources, but because some people don’t vaccinate or delay vaccination from fear of perceived risks or religious beliefs. While 90% of parents do vaccinate, and most do on the CDC’s recommended schedule, 10% of parents choose to delay or skip their children’s shots, and many parents have questions about vaccinating.

That hesitancy lies at the nexus of where science meets culture. Vaccinating children is inextricably linked to parents’ love and fear. The acute fear of deadly diseases that fueled panic about not vaccinating in earlier times, has been replaced by a new kind of pervasive fear about vaccinating, also born from parents’ abiding love of their children. That huge change in the CDC's reported measles rates in just 15 years may be attributable to one bad study and the panic it incited. In 1998, many parents fell prey to Andrew Wakefield’s fraudulent study of 12 patients citing a link between MMR-based vaccines (measles, mumps, rubella) and autism, peddled through the media by well-meaning celebrities. Understandably, some fearful parents opted out or delayed vaccination.

Fifteen years later, the MMR/autism link is one of the most researched areas in vaccines. The worldwide scientific consensus from myriad peer-reviewed studies of many thousands of subjects is that there’s no association between the MMR vaccine and autism. Wakefield has been fully discredited – his medical license was revoked, Lancet retracted the paper, citing Wakefield’sethical misconduct, and study authors acknowledged, "We did not prove an association between measles, mumps, and rubella vaccine and the syndrome described.” But the urban myth persists among entirely new generations of parents because it was so effectively perpetrated through word-of-mouth.  And it stuck because some parents are less likely to trust scientific institutions and medical experts than celebrities and information circulating on the Internet. For them, questioning vaccinations is a sign of love and vigilance.

Social media myths about such an emotionally-charged subject can influence the reception of expert information from dedicated scientists, doctors, health care professionals, and public health officials. Resulting slips in vaccination rates can put public health in the balance.  To protect their constituencies, state policy makers are tightening vaccination exceptions. http://www.kpbs.org/news/2014/jan/02/new-law-requires-doctors-note-vaccine-exemptions-c/While this increases vaccination rates and minimizes outbreaks, it doesn’t close the science understanding gap, which is paramount for the long-term vibrancy of communities and economies. 
One way to close that gap is to present science in accessible ways that acknowledge and tackle parents’ questions. NOVA’s Vaccines – Calling the Shots, produced for NOVA by Tangled Bank Studios in association with Genepool Productions, recently premiering on PBS, does just that. Featuring scientists, pediatricians, psychologists, anthropologists, and parents wrestling with vaccine-related questions, the hour-long film explores the history and science behind vaccinations, tracks outbreaks of previously eradicated diseases, sheds light on the risks of opting out of vaccinating, and presents new science on the genetic causes of autism. The film is streamed online along with a rich array of digital assets, together examining the science and the cultural, policy, and public health implications of vaccines.

Hopefully, this new entrée to vaccines will seed an informed, non-polarizing dialogue about the best way to protect our families and communities.  And, perhaps it will help you and me see how our understanding of science and our choices about vaccination are critically linked to public health and to each other’s well-being.

Anne Zeiser is a media professional, including working in science and health communications. She contributed to NOVA’s Vaccines – Calling the Shots. (You can join the conversation at #vaccinesNOVA) Anne Zeiser tweets via @azuremedia

This article can also be seen in the Huffington Post at this link

Tuesday, July 16, 2013


Courtesy: (CC) Larry D. Moore
Sweet Snack, Sweet Brand

By Anne Zeiser
President and CEO 
Azure Media

The Twinkie, “the golden sponge cake with creamy filling” conjures up memories of post WWII moms laying out the treat to the delight of fawning children.  That saccharine scenario has prevailed for some 80 years and continues this week, despite a short hiccup. That’s brand endurance.

The Twinkie began in Illinois in 1930 with a banana cream filling, but when bananas were rationed during the war, it switched to the signature vanilla cream, which has reigned for more than half a century. In the ‘80s, Hostess introduced the short-lived Fruit and Cream filling, and in 2005, it brought back banana as part of a King Kong film promotion. With a 20% uptick in sales, banana filling was back for good.

Twinkies have weathered The Great Depression, the German invasion of Poland, the bombing of Hiroshima, the Civil Rights Movement, the Beatles, Roe vs. Wade, disco, the Dot-Com boom, 9-11 and Justin Bieber.  Along the way, the Twinkie has become a true American icon: a lunchbox staple; a deep-fried treat at country fairs; an urban legend of indefinite shelf life; an entry in the 1999 Millennium Time Capsule; a single-food diet; and even, a legal defense.

So, it’s no wonder that in 2012, when parent company Hostess filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection and announced it would suspend production of the snack cake because of lagging sales and inability to come to terms with its two unions -- there was a hue and cry of epic proportions. Legions of fans took to Twitter, Tumblr and Reddit lamenting the demise of their favorite glucose drug of choice. Even “celebrities” from New Jersey Governor Chris Christie to Donald Trump got into the fray. Home-baked capitalists began hoarding them, banking on big returns on eBay.

The end of the Twinkie spawned evangelistic fan reaction and consumed popular culture, motivating private equity firms Apollo Global Management and Metropoulos & Co. to buy the brand and, using non unionized workers, put Twinkies back on the shelf again during this summer of our re-contentment.

Why has Twinkie become the ever-surviving cockroach of unhealthy snacks and desserts? Because of its almost-unparalleled brand equity. Despite trends toward health-conscious foods or gourmet expressions of guilty pleasures, the Twinkie is a brand master of the dopamine fix and nostalgic aura. Among brands, it’s S-W-E-E-T.

  • Tells a story
  • Conveys a clear message
  • Connects to audiences emotionally
  •  Delivers value
  • Is consistent
  • Generates loyalty
The private equity firms recognized that even mammoth financial investments to create a new brand couldn’t duplicate Twinkie’s hard-earned brand equity.  Much smarter to leverage the stalwart brand. They understood that creating and expressing a clear brand with authentic meaning and value is one of the most important things you can do when you start a business or manage a product. And, it’s one of the most difficult.  

It’s the assessment of a brand’s equity - what the brand means in the marketplace and the loyalty it engenders with its target audience - that gives it monetary value. Companies are bought and sold based on that brand value, just like the Twinkie. Even your Twitter account and Facebook Page have values ascribed to them based on the number and nature of your followers and fans and their engagement with your posts. There’s an algorithm that determines your social brand value.

Susan Schreter, a venture capitalist, small business funding expert and author of “Start On Purpose: Everything You Need To Know and Do toStartup with Strength,” says the fundamentals for start up businesses to generatebrand equity with lasting financial value are creating brands “that stand for something” and managing brands’ value so “they can sell themselves” and you can “charge higher prices.” 

When James Alexander Dewar, the manager at Continental Bakery, used strawberry shortcake machines to fill the cakes with banana during the berry’s off-season to achieve more efficiency, he couldn’t have imagined he was creating a signature American brand that would sell for the lion’s share of $410 million and prevail for three-quarters of a century…and counting.

So, what’s the outlook for the new, old Twinkie? The biggest threat to the Twinkie’s survival is that it’s breaking the “consistency” attribute of good brands. It’s smaller than the original Twinkie, weighing in at 38.5 grams with 135 calories; the original Twinkie weighed 42.5 grams with 150 calories. Will audiences notice and care? The new Twinkies also have a longer shelf life of 45 days, up from the 26 days. Likely, that will help the brand, feeding the Twinkie’s kitchiness as the indestructible snack. Perhaps its infinite shelf life can translate into infinite brand equity. 

Is there such a thing as an immortal brand? Probably God, and just maybe, the Twinkie. 

Anne Zeiser is the author of Transmedia Marketing--From Film and TV to Games and Digital Media a new title from Focal Press (2015) in the American Film Market®  Presents book series, which  takes a 21st century holistic approach to content creation across multiple media platforms through both storytelling and marketing.

Friday, April 19, 2013


Curtis, the helper and hero
By Anne Zeiser
President and CEO 
Azure Media

When this Marathon Monday dawned a perfect day for über running, it put me in a great mood even though I’m not much of a runner. Marathon Day signals the “real” start of spring for New Englanders. It reminds Americans of our steely roots because it always falls on Patriots Day. It launches spring school vacation week in Massachusetts, And, it stirs my former professional connections to the event, having covered it for Boston’s CBS News affiliate (now NBC) and managed marketing client, the Boston Athletic Association’s 100th Anniversary activities.

So the holiday opened for me, my eight year old son, husband and dog with the lazy feel of a Sunday morning.  I lingered over coffee knowing there was no morning scramble to shower and catch the school bus. We’d decided to make it a TV-free day. We played the board game Life, I did a West Coast conference call and my husband puttered outside. In the early afternoon, with my son playing at my feet, I checked Facebook and learned about the bombings. Abandoning the family vow, I flipped on the TV, aghast at the barbarism at the “Hub’s” beloved Boston Marathon.

In just a few minutes, my “Mom” instincts overtook my journalist and news junkie instincts and I turned off the TV, knowing the cumulative effects of media. But in that short time, the fear and gruesome implications were already in sharp reveal. So, I decided to talk to my son about what had happened at the Marathon. In today's wired world, there's no shielding children completely from such harsh realities. Who could have guessed that I'd need to find words to comfort my son like after the Newtown, CT massacre -- twice in just six months?

As a former PBS-er, I went to my most trusted parenting source, PBS KIDS. It offered Mr. Rogers’ sage advice, in times of tragedy, "look for the helpers, you will always find people who are helping." I conveyed those thoughts to my son, while noting Rogers’ additional advice to the media to be sure to cover the “helpers.” I didn't know what my son felt or heard, but was glad to have Fred Rogers’ “helpful” words.

Then, we all went outside to get distance from the horror unfolding on the television. We planted bulbs, played catch with our dog, Curtis and took the bikes for a spin.  At bedtime, when I did a recheck with my son about the days’ events, he delivered a non-verbal signal of understanding and comfort, hugging Curtis, who was curled up at the end of the bed.

This vacation week I decided to send my son to our town's vacation community program in hopes that playtime with other kids would help him both separate from and process the atrocity he had “witnessed.” Yesterday was a bit better for everyone -- a day of healing with the President in Boston comforting victims, the city and the nation; suspects identified; and social media afire with sentiments of "Boston Strong." At the town’s vacation program, there were special visitors for the children, "Barn Babies," coincidently scheduled for that day. My son played with piglets, kids (goats), chicks, puppies and kittens. After that, he was the most relaxed I'd seen him since the atrocity happened. The animal babies had done their magic. 

This morning, unaware of the firefight and carjacking, we expected more healing and calm.  The call that went to voicemail at the crack of dawn from Emerson College (where I'm an adjunct professor) cancelling classes because the city was in lockdown, should have been a tip off. During breakfast, I turned on the TV to check on the weather and learned about the unimaginable developments with the two Marathon bomber suspects.

My son was visually shaken so I turned off the TV immediately. Only with a lot of coaxing did I learn of my son’s particular worry. (He's not too chatty about his anxieties or concerns). He explained that he was afraid that the “bad man” was going to come to our house. I quickly responded, “Oh no, the last place a bad guy on the run could hideout is a house with a cute white pup that barks when someone comes to the house.” A huge smile of relief came across my son's face. Curtis closed the love loop by licking my son’s hand. This sometimes-annoying canine practice of announcing visitors with loud barks had become my saving grace. In that moment of my son’s smile, Curtis had become my helper and my hero.

As a concerned parent, I’ve learned two things so far from the Boston Marathon tragedy. First, make sure you work hard to understand your kids’ specific fears so you can address them directly to make them feel safer. And second, look everywhere for the “helpers” because they may come in many forms. From the Marathon runners donating blood right after the race and BAA personnel, volunteers' and bystanders' rushing toward the smoke to first responders' swift and steady actions and medical staff working tirelessly through several nights.

And in our case, the “helper” took the shape of a medium-sized lab mix, Curtis, who celebrates his fourth anniversary of adoption from the Northeast Animal Shelter in Salem, MA – tomorrow. 

This post was inspired by my interview in this week's Huffington Post's Parenting page.