A few weeks after the stroke "act FAST" campaign launched in 2009, a worried six-year-old girl in Shrewsbury ran round to a neighbour’s house saying, "Granny looks like that woman on the telly". The neighbour confirmed the signs of a stroke and rang 999 immediately, ensuring the grandmother got to hospital quick enough to be saved from severe disability or even death.
This was one of a number of true stories that emerged the moment the campaign launched. They are still happening to this day, seven years on. And all because of a truly powerful piece of public health advertising.
So, what can we learn from this piece of communication, hailed earlier this month as "the most effective piece of public health advertising ever made." A campaign that has directly prevented 4,000 people from serious disability.
1. Advertising still has the power to educate
It’s not that fashionable a role for advertising these days, but the stroke campaign proves the power of advertising as educator. Data showed people were ignorant of the signs of strokes, and did not know that they should treat it as a medical emergency. The role for advertising was to address this ignorance and deliver critical, life-saving information.
2. Advertising can deliver a lot of information
So often we are told "just say one thing", "don’t throw too much information at people because they’ll never grasp it". The stroke advertising proves that this does not have to be the case – it delivers a lot of valuable information in one go. It succeeds because the information is broken down into manageable chunks; the information is given air to breathe in long-format media spaces, and is delivered in a calm and measured tone. Lastly, the words are also mirrored by powerful visuals, in an often maligned, yet remarkably effective "show and tell" style.
3. A powerful visual metaphor
But above and beyond the information is a powerful visual metaphor – a fire in the brain – that provides what the neuroscientists call a "flashbulb memory" of the risks. The fire works on a number of levels: it pinpoints where strokes strike – the brain; it demonstrates the increased damage if not treated; it represents a sense of urgency and emergency. It is this feeling of drama that the six year-old girl was responding to – she might not have known exactly what she was facing, but she definitely knew it was bad.
4. It provides a sense of hope
Critically, the advertising provides hope. The line that has proven to be the most memorable in the communication is "the faster you act, the more of the person you save". The benefit of action is clear.
5. It involves key ethnic groups
The campaign has proven effective across key ethnic groups. People of African and Caribbean descent are known to be at higher risk of stroke. We have deliberately involved them in casting and setting – a barber’s shop – as well as taking the message to their communities, eg phone box posters.
This is public service communication at its powerful best.