When I was approached by the Saskatoon Health Region to discuss how to improve on public hand washing awareness and compliance, I was naturally eager to take a shot at a campaign that could potentially make a difference. Illness in the workplace and schools actually takes an enormous toll on our economy and society as a whole, and the possibility of reducing it represented an exciting and truly rewarding opportunity.
Also, it a great opportunity to do great work in a creatively untapped arena, and after years of using materials unchanged since who-knows-when, and with less than ideal results, the client was serious. They understood that we needed an approach that was new, and one that would probably have to stretch their comfort zone as a public agency.
The biggest challenge for a campaign of this nature is that it's not a question of changing someones perspective towards something external, like advocacy, political messaging, or convincing them product A is better than product B. It's a case of a person being motivated internally to re-evaluate lifelong behaviours and attitudes, with no immediate and obvious gratification, product or tax receipt to show for it.
As the ideas began to flow, and some of them pretty cool ones, I found I was rejecting concept after concept. I couldn't quite put my finger on it (no pun intended), but I just felt that while a purely lighthearted concept might offer the viewer a giggle or a gross one turn a head, they probably would fail to achieve more than a superficial impact.
What dawned on me was that most people don't care about how bacteria reproduce, which types are more dangerous or how much of it is on which part of your body; out of sight, out of mind you could say. But what I know people DO care about is the possibility of spending a weekend with the toilet instead of golfing or going to the lake.
So the bottom line: germs are gross, and they can make you really sick. As is often the case, the solution was almost a no brainer once the problem was thoroughly explored; why not literally ‘illustrate’ what germs can do to you… using REAL germs. And what would be even cooler? Rather than utilize stock lab cultures, let's drive home the immediacy of the problem by using bacteria sampled from around the viewers own local environment, and highlight this fact in the campaign.
Client approval was immediate and enthusiastic… albeit a leap of faith; they assumed I knew what I was doing… for whatever reason.
So to make it actually happen. Once the University of Saskatchewan microbiology lab agreed to partner in the project, the fun began.
The problem is that usually designers illustrate in predictable media like pencil or paint, so imagine trying to work with something that could grow in any color, any shape, in any direction, and on it's own timetable… challenging to say the least.
The key to the power of this campaign in my mind was to avoid creating or manipulating the germ images using photoshop, it had to be the real deal.
Many different methods were tried, but plate after plate, the germs just refused to cooperate. Sometimes they stayed within 'the lines', but didn't look gross, other times they looked gross, but grew too wildly and the sick people were not recognizable. Sometimes they didn't grow at all, and sometimes they grew so fast, they started dying before I could get in the lab with the camera.
After several weeks and what seemed like hundreds of dishes, I developed a technique that clearly showed the 'grossness' of the germs, while at the same time allowing a clean rendering of the characters. I found that placing clear vinyl stickers of the 'sick people' on the petri dishes and then infecting the surrounding area, revealed the 'sick dude' images beautifully as the germs grew around the stickers.
The reaction both from the Health Region and in the public has been really amazing and the campaign so far is doing exactly as the client hope it would. I think these unsolicited client and public comments speak for themselves:
"It is awesome that our long time goal of getting hand washing on the public radar has finally come to fruition, thanks to your expertise…"
"… posters are making a big splash in the community."
"So proud of the end result. You're a magician!"
"... such great results. I so much appreciate your efforts, creativity and the fact that you have created such a great product."
"I noticed those in the Endo unit last week...I washed my hands so much… they became dried out and chapped!"
"Speaking as someone that spent 3 weeks in the hospital in June, I can assure you these are appropriately arresting and visually impactful..."