Communication Currents

Zombies Attract Viewers, But Do They Prompt Behavior Change? Emergency Preparedness Buzz and Action

June 1, 2015
Crisis Communication

Zombies have invaded public and social consciousness. From AMC’s award-winning television show Walking Dead (recently renewed for its sixth season in 2016) to Zombies, Run! (a game and smartphone app that encourages users to “Get Fit. Escape Zombies. Become a Hero”), there is no doubt the rising dead play a role in a variety of entertainment and other social endeavors. Given zombies’ robust presence in popular culture, a pressing question arises: Are you ready for a zombie apocalypse? 

If you are, then you are likely prepared for a variety of public health emergencies such as pandemics, hurricanes, or floods. At least that is the premise behind a popular emergency preparedness campaign initially launched by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and picked up by a variety of sources.

“Preparedness 101: Zombie Apocalypse” 

On May 16, 2011, CDC Director Dr. Ali S. Khan published a post on the agency’s Public Health Matters blog. The entry boasted the eye-catching title “Preparedness 101: Zombie Apocalypse.” Content took a tongue-in-cheek zombie-preparedness approach to discuss creating an emergency kit, devising emergency plans, and finding more information from CDC sources. After tweeting about the blog post, CDC was met with nearly immediate popularity across social media platforms. Quickly, #CDC and #ZombieApocalypse became top-10 worldwide trending topics on Twitter. And within a week, CDC pulled in 2,324,517 blog page views, representing an increase from an average 80 page views per hour prior to the post to an average 30,000 page views per hour afterward. Expanding CDC’s reach, zombie preparedness caught the attention of traditional media venues like The Wall Street Journal and CNN.

Capitalizing on popularity, CDC went to work on a variety of zombie preparedness items that remain available for public consumption, ranging from zombie e-cards to zombie widgets to a zombie novella, and even full lesson plans and activities for educators. Many of these items prominently display the tagline “Get a Kit, Make a Plan, Be Prepared,” and they encourage viewers to visit for more information.

 Communication About Zombies: Effective? 

Using popular-culture-referencing humor in risk campaigns is a mass communication strategy that is increasingly prevalent, but it has far from conclusive empirical evidence regarding effectiveness. Beyond risk campaigns, scholars have found humor appeals in public communication can in some cases increase audiences’ liking of the message and source and even enhance persuasion. Conversely, others have asserted humor can reduce source and message credibility and trivialize perceived risk consequences related to behaviors the messages promote.

Thus, lingering questions about the effectiveness of CDC’s zombie campaign prompted our multiple methods study. Specifically, through an interview with a campaign manager, qualitative analysis of secondary campaign metrics provided by CDC, and an experiment with a sample of university students, we examined whether the CDC management deemed the zombie preparedness campaign effective—and if so, whether viewers were indeed likely to “get a kit, make a plan, be prepared,” and visit CDC’s website for more information.

The Zombie Dilemma: Awareness or Action? 

Our study’s qualitative components revealed CDC’s strides in raising awareness among new audiences and developing public conversations about emergency preparedness information. As these were the campaign’s goals, according to its manager (and confirmed in other research), results point toward communication effectiveness. Indeed, the interview and secondary material data showed campaign messages generated more than three billion total media impressions in a few months, in part including massive increases in CDC’s zombie blog visits, web page visits, and clicks on related items such as badges and posters.

In addition to mere sets of eyes on messaging, qualitative insights highlighted added benefits of using social media and humorous pop-culture references in disaster preparedness communication. For example, the campaign manager explained many ways viewers formed and participated in online communities surrounding zombie preparedness. The manager also mentioned the low cost and capability for direct communication with publics as additional advantages of implementing a social media strategy.

Yet, our experiment with a convenience sample of young adults complicated this deservedly glowing assessment of campaign effectiveness, revealing a more concerning side for those attempting to persuade audiences to take preparedness actions. As part of our experimental design, we randomly assigned participants to read either the CDC’s “Preparedness 101: Zombie Apocalypse” blog post (the “humorous” treatment condition) or the identical post with zombie references replaced with natural disasters (the “non-humorous” treatment condition). As predicted, participants in the humorous condition (i.e., those who viewed CDC’s zombie blog post) were statistically significantly lesslikely to report intentions to (1) get a kit, (2) make a plan, (3) be prepared, or (4) even seek emergency preparedness information in the future, compared with those in the non-humorous condition.

That is, in sum this research found that for low costs, CDC’s zombie preparedness campaign vastly increased emergency-preparedness message exposure and created national buzz, particularly among difficult-to-reach and previously untapped audiences. But that very exposure may have diminished some young adult viewers’ (already low) intentions to take any of a host of preparedness actions or even to seek more preparedness information.

Zombie Emergency Communication Effectiveness: An Open Question 

The original CDC campaign theme and taglines show no signs of withering. Indeed, now five years later, comparable strategies have popped up across the country. For example, the governor of Kansas recently declared October “Zombie Preparedness Month.” Another CDC blog post, titled “Teachable Moments—Courtesy of The Walking Dead on AMC,” has surfaced. Determining the effectiveness of these and similar efforts, however, requires examination of whether the communication’s goal is to raise awareness or prompt behavioral change, key considerations for both academics and practitioners.

Ultimately, based on our preliminary findings, it may be the case that zombies are continuing to overtake pop culture while invading viewers’ intentions to prepare for a zombie apocalypse—or any emergency—as well.

About the author (s)

Liang (Lindsay) Ma

University of Maryland, College Park

Doctoral Candidate

Julia Daisy Fraustino

West Virginia University

Assistant Professor