Faeces: public enemy #1

overcoming fear of the blank page

When Val Curtis wanted to effect some real good, she turned to the powers of evil.


Dr Curtis, an anthropologist, decided positive action needed to be taken to stop the millions of unnecessary deaths from diseases caused by dirty hands. Handwashing with soap can reduce the risk of diarrhoea by about 47% and the risk of respiratory infection by 23%. So Dr Curtis turned to the organisations who know better than anyone how to convince people to do something – marketing companies.


She knew that over the past decade, many companies had perfected the art of creating automatic behaviors – habits – among consumers. These habits have helped companies earn billions of dollars when customers eat snacks, apply lotions and wipe counters almost without thinking, often in response to a carefully designed set of daily cues.


Read the whole article for a truly creepy and unnerving understanding of what it is that makes us do what we do every day without thinking – and who is controlling our habits.


dirty hands


Ghanaians had no problems washing their hands when they could see the dirt, but didn’t think it was necessary to wash after going to the toilet because they couldn’t see the germs. Employing freaky manipulative marketing tactics, Dr Curtis’s team produced a public health campaign which sold disgust, and it worked – a 13 percent increase in the use of soap after the toilet and a 41 percent increase in soap use before eating.


Dr Curtis’s team has managed to use the ‘powers of evil’ to effect real good in Africa, and I think that’s brilliant. Clearly other campaigns hadn’t worked so the team turned to something radically different. Other campaigns had attempted to blame the mother for their sick children, without properly educating them or changing their habits. In her 2003 article “Talking dirty: how to save a million lives” Curtis points out that handwashing may be at least as effective as some vaccines under development, and eminently more reachable by most people.


There are of course serious concerns about multi-million dollar peddlers of questionable health products intruding into the public health sphere. There is a risk that it can all go horribly wrong a la Nestlé, but if Dr Curtis’s Global Public-Private Partnership for Handwashing with Soap manages its campaign effectively, then the risk should be minimised.


Dr Val Curtis is an interesting cookie. Her research interests include the evolution of human behaviour, the role of disgust and its relationship to hygiene and morality. Her research suggests that disgust evolved to protect animals, including humans, from disease and helps explain the peculiar history of hygiene – and that the cues which signal disgust can be manipulated. Clearly, she is a woman who is researching new avenues to change old problems, and I admire that.


Diarrhoeal diseases are the forgotten killers of children. Every year about 2 million children die from these neglected diseases (WHO Report 2002), the equivalent of a full jumbo jet every 2 hours. However, there are ways to prevent these deaths, and one of the best is also one of the simplest: washing hands with soap. (International Journal of Environmental Health Research: 13, S73 – S79 June 2003)

I wouldn’t want to be the Aviation Minister with statistics like that!

One Response

  1. What a top post!
    And the NYT article was also a very good read, makes me think about a few of my habits, as I am getting a bit compulsive with email and FB.

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Nat Newman

Nat Newman is an award-winning writer of short stories, content, podcasts, feature articles, drunk text messages and, soon, a novella.


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