Using humour in health messaging no joke

Researchers say humour can be valuable in delivering potentially worrying health messages.
Researchers say humour can be valuable in delivering potentially worrying health messages.

As governments grapple with how best to lift vaccination rates, new research has found the value of injecting humour into health messaging.

The strategy is particularly effective for delivering information that can cause fear, and if used well, can act as an "emotional buffer" when discussing topics such as breast and testicular cancer self-examination, safe sex, skin cancer and binge drinking.

Appropriately, the study was conducted by Scottish comedian and women's health physiotherapist Elaine Miller with a team of Monash University researchers who analysed 13 studies over 10 years whereby humour was used to communicate serious messages.

"What we found is that humour can act as an effective vehicle for delivering messages people might find fear-inducing or threatening," Ms Miller said.

"Humour, if used well, can be an emotional buffer that breaks down some of that fear so the underlying messages reach the intended audience and influence their behaviours and attitudes."

However there are dangers with the approach, "a poorly judged joke can ruin a health campaign's message, a therapeutic relationship, a gig; or all three of those at once." Ms Miller said

"Humour is very complex and further research to examine humour and public health promotion is certainly warranted."

The study highlighted how the health promotion field can learn from advertising and public safety campaigns that work by attracting attention and promoting positive attitudes toward a specific message.

One of the best Australian examples of effective public safety messaging in the last decade was the Metro Trains Melbourne campaign, Dumb Ways to Die.

Featuring a cast of hapless cartoon characters and a cheerful melody, the lyrics include "eat medicine that's out of date, use your private parts as piranha bait, dumb ways to die".

The jingle closes with the words; "Stand on the edge of a train station platform, drive around the boom gates at a level crossing, run across the tracks between the platforms, they may not rhyme but their quite possibly, the dumbest ways to die".

"Humour is enjoyable. People are drawn to it - they want to look at it and be part of it," Head of Monash University's Health and Social Care Unit Helen Skouteris said.

"Importantly, this review highlighted that humour can be utilised as a tool to encourage conversation and sharing.

"It's not just a way to send a message but actually encourages people to talk about it and be open with others, which we believe can lead to influencing society's perceptions and behaviours around important public health prevention messages."

The study, A systematic review of humour-based strategies for addressing public health priorities, was published online in the Australian and New Zealand Journal of Public Health.

Australian Associated Press