When I worked in college health promotion, every September was a rush of back-to-school events that included health education materials and massive amounts of “freebies.” We are talking magnets, key chains, condoms—the works! But are these giveaways actually effective for promoting healthy behaviors? It turns out the answer is yes—for certain types of products in certain types of health communication campaigns.
A new systematic review, published in the American Journal of Preventative Medicine, evaluated the effectiveness of three decades worth of health communication campaigns that used multiple channels (including mass media) and distributed health-related products for free or at a reduced price.
With these findings in mind, I offer three tips to help you get your money’s worth on those freebies:
(1) Not all products are created equal. Do not get pressured into using random giveaways just because they are funny or trendy. Instead, consult the peer-reviewed literature to pick a product that has a demonstrated effect on your behavior of interest. There are different types of products to consider:
- Products that help people start or continue healthy behaviors. Providing pedometers has been shown to promote physical activity.
- Products that help people stop harmful behaviors. It has been shown that offering free nicotine replacement therapy can increase calls to a stop smoking quitline.
- Products that protect people against injuries and diseases. Providing helmets through a loaner program can increase helmet acceptance rates among skiers and snowboarders.
(2) Make the products just one part of the strategy. Product giveaways should be used in combination with other health communication strategies (e.g., mass media or social media campaigns). Access to a free or reduced-price product may be a great start but it is usually not enough to sustain a healthy behavior. Therefore, these products should be used in combination with clear messages that educate your audience on how and why those products should be used.
For example, the City of Grand Junction, CO, saw increases in bicycle helmet use after implementing a campaign that combined affordable helmets with community education.
(3) Evaluate your efforts! Too often in health communication and education, we do things a certain way because historically that is how it has always been done. Perhaps your campus provides students with free tote bags from the health center every September. Maybe your hospital provides all new employees with a stress ball for their desk. Many organizations spend a significant amount of their budget on giveaways, even if there is no evidence to show they change behavior in any way. Here are some sample evaluation questions to keep in mind:
- How many people were exposed to your health communication campaign?
- How many people initiated/stopped/sustained the health behavior of interest?
- Were the products more effective with a particular type of audience or demographic?
Reviewing the literature, using a combination of health communication strategies, and evaluating the impact of your products will help you to build an effective program and make the most of your money.
Leah Roman has spent almost a decade in public health. In 2013, she launched Roman Public Health Consulting to provide services in areas such as strategic planning, program evaluation, and health education. Since 2010, she has written Pop Health—a blog that examines the intersection of public health and popular culture. It was named one of the Top 25 Public Health Blogs of 2012 by MPHOnline. Leah earned a B.A. in Psychology from the University of San Diego and a Master of Public Health degree from Boston University. She also holds the designation of Master, Certified Health Education Specialist (MCHES).