Using Social Marketing to Promote Cold and Flu Prevention Behaviors on an Australian University Campus

In 2011, a social marketing intervention was developed and tested at the University of Wollongong to determine its effectiveness in reducing the spread of colds and flu among university students and staff. Delivered in six stages, the intervention began with a comprehensive review of existing campaign materials that had been designed to address the transmission of viral infections among university populations or young adults. After this review was completed, the development team hosted a series of focus groups with students and staff at the university in order to get a better sense for their knowledge, attitudes, and behaviors related to the prevention and transmission of colds and the flu. Focus group participants also provided feedback on existing materials and offered opinions on different messages and images to help guide the development team in the creation of marketing materials for the intervention. Using data collected through this formative research, graphic design students at the university were recruited to work alongside research staff to design posters featuring campaign slogans and messages. Materials developed for students had a fun tone but communicated a serious and consistent message centered around social responsibility, while materials for staff had a more serious tone and emphasized the impact of others being sick in the workplace. The campaign’s key slogan “cold and flu affects more than you” was accompanied by messaging promoting three prevention behaviors 1) wash your hands, 2) cough and sneeze into your sleeve, and 3) stay home if you are sick. Behaviors were selected because of research that indicated they were likely to be very effective, easy to implement, and memorable. Once the intervention began, a number of strategies were used to raise awareness and encourage engagement in target behaviors. Print and digital posters were displayed at various locations on campus, hygiene centers were placed in key locations, free merchandise items with campaign messages were distributed at flu booths, and a campaign webpage was created. Flu characters and a “wall of sneeze” activity were used to engage with students and staff – participants that correctly recalled at least one campaign message and demonstrated the cough or sneeze into your sleeve behavior received a free “cold and flu” mug. Photographs were taken as participants demonstrated the desired behavior and were later placed on the flu campaign’s “wall of sneeze” webpage. Pre- and post intervention surveys completed by university staff and students were used to evaluate changes in the perceived severity of, and susceptibility to, colds and flu; beliefs about effective prevention strategies; and engagement in preventative behaviors. A total of 669 staff and students who completed online surveys were included in the pre-intervention survey data analysis and 1,175 were included in the post-intervention survey data analysis. Recognition of “cough or sneeze into your sleeve” as an effective prevention strategy increased pre- to post-intervention by 39.6% among staff and 25.1% among students. Additionally, substantial percentage increases in the top ranked prevention strategies were found for the three core messages pre- and post intervention: “hand washing” (51% for students), “cough in sleeve” (59.2%, staff; 71.1%, students), and “stay at home if sick” (120%, staff).

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Expertise in Community-Based Social Marketing