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Reaching the unreachable, convincing the inconvincible – Babies Know the Facts About Folic.

By Carmen E Lefevre, on 19 October 2016

By: Dr Aileen McGloin, Communications Manager, Digital & Health, Marketing & Communications at safefood

On the island of Ireland we have a genetic make up that means we are more likely to have babies with neural tube defects. Predispositions like this are typical of any islanders. Another genetic nutritional issue for us is coeliac disease.

A couple of years ago, in contrast to decades of decreasing incidence, we saw the number of cases of Spina Bifida and other NTDs rising in both the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland. We now know that this is likely to be the result of changing food patterns over the course of our economic recession.

In an attempt to address this, public health bodies began reviewing our policies, including fortification and safefood, the government agency that addresses food safety and nutritional issues, was charged with developing a behaviour change campaign.

With limited time and resources, our job was to raise awareness of the issue and promote folic acid supplement consumption. We started by looking at all the key behavioural barriers:

  • Relevancy – most women in the 18-45 year bracket are not planning pregnancies, those taking contraception think that it’s 100% reliable, women who had already had healthy pregnancy(ies) didn’t think they needed it and everyone enters pregnancy with an optimistic bias about the outcome for their baby.
  • Confusion – that you can get enough naturally from food, or that food is already fortified.
  • Cultural issues – taking folic acid is considered a ‘tell-tale’ sign (sexual activity and planning pregnancy)
  • Practical issues – cost and inconvenience

In short, our job was to reach the unreachable and convince them of the inconvincible. We focused on increasing knowledge through education, changing attitude through persuasion and behaviour by enablement. We choose digital and social media as key channels for communicating with younger women. All the right nuts and bolts for a behaviour change campaign, right?

Not quite.

Successful digitally or socially led campaigns must create something fascinating and compelling that people want to share and talk about or use. We were rolling out the same health message that had been around for 20 years and we knew most women weren’t going to relate to it anyway. What I rarely hear spoken about at behaviour change conferences is creativity and how science must meet art if we are to be successful.

People love stories, they like to be entertained and they like to laugh. If we want to engage and influence behaviour via the channels that people use to do their daily business, talk to their friends or be entertained we have to be able to grab their attention first and see if they will engage with our message second.

That’s where our babies came in (video below). We used moving images of cute babies sharing wisdom that is usually the domain of the ‘Irish Mammy’. There was surprise and humour and charm.

So far we know that this meeting of art and science seems to be working. Over 95% of women know what folic acid is, what it does and who should take it. The proportion of those taking it has risen from 30% to 36% and over our first phase of the campaign, folic acid sales increased by 26%.

We have a long way to go yet though.

You can read more about it here:


I’d really like to hear about other examples of behaviour change campaigns that have been rolled out via digital advertising and social media. What have you seen that you think works well?


BIO: Aileen McGloin is the Communications Manager, Digital & Health, at safefood. She’s a public health nutritionist with a particular interest in food-related behaviour. In the past she has worked in the food industry, academia and research. She has been with safefood for almost 8 years and now manages all aspects of safefood’s digital and social media communications. She lives in Co. Wicklow in Ireland and is married to a crime writer so thankfully loves books. Her daughter is 8 and wants to be a spy. She spins, walks and swims to stay healthy. Her vices are TV that is so bad it’s good and clothes.

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