Beyond Arts and Health: The Need to Include All of Popular Culture

By Burns, Mark | Perspectives in Public Health, January 2013 | Go to article overview

Beyond Arts and Health: The Need to Include All of Popular Culture


Burns, Mark, Perspectives in Public Health


Arts and health could benefit from expanding to become popular culture and health. Just as not everybody is interested in health, not everyone is interested in the arts. Practitioners and academics need to find out what the cultural interests of different target groups actually are. They can then systematically explore how to use these interests for health purposes. Mark Burns looks at the application of this approach specifically to health education.

Don't be a bore: start with people's own interests not your own

Back in 2006 I was a health education worker in North East England. I was faced with the task of communicating about health to large numbers of people from a variety of different target groups. Campaigns involving leaflets, posters and health stalls still had their place in the health education toolbox, but I felt something was missing. Just producing more of the same did not strike me as being an effective way forward.

It seemed to me that health workers often assumed everyone is, or should be, interested in healthy living. The rising figures for lifestyle related conditions such as obesity suggested otherwise.

I decided to turn things on their head and start from what different target groups were actually interested in, then look for ideas and evidence as to how to link these to health.

I was aware that community workers and teachers had sometimes encouraged individuals or small groups to write their own songs or produce their own comic strips as a way of exploring issues. This led me to thinking more broadly about the role of popular culture as a vehicle for communicating health messages in a meaningful way.

Sex and Drugs and Rock and... Health

I wanted to find out what different target groups were actually interested in and not make assumptions. After leaving the NHS I accessed some market research data for a local city.1

The data broke down the population by demographic group. This gave both health status in different categories and groups' pastimes and hobbies, e.g. pop music, romantic novels, magazines and fashion.

Other than these topics loosely related to the arts, football and crosswords were also popular with many groups. I also looked at comedy, comics and computer games. I knew that they had all already been used in health education.

I used this information to produce a website on using popular culture as a health education and engagement tool.2

I do not claim that the interests I have listed are relevant everywhere in the UK, never mind in other countries. Instead I would encourage people to do their own research into what is popular with the people they work with and adapt the approach accordingly.

Popular culture needs to be used systematically

In some ways of course what I am writing about is not new. However, my own experience suggested that the use of popular culture was often not fully thought through. I believe that what I am calling for is more systematic and rigorous.

I suggest what is needed is:

* A cultural shiftto attempting to always see issues from the point of view of what would interest and engage the target group. This is even if this approach is eventually dismissed as irrelevant for the particular project in question.

* The systematic use of research to confirm what interests the target group and how such interests can be used to influence their health behaviour.

* The application of health theory to the use of popular culture as a health tool e.g. the stages of change model.3

* The application of practice from other disciplines where appropriate e.g. around how to write an effective comic.

* Effective collaboration between health workers and other professionals in the field of entertainment e.g. stand-up comedians.

* The evaluation of projects and the dissemination of results through dedicated channels e.g. popular culture and health conferences

* The coming together of workers who use different types of popular culture to promote health. …

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