Friday, June 18, 2010

Four five six, it's a health mnemonic

My mom was a teacher, before she ended up staying home with four kids.But she never lost the spark for teaching. So, in addition to our regular schooling, we all got tutored at home. One of Mom's favourite teaching tactics was the mnemonic device. In fact, just last weekend, she successfully taught my 5-year-old son how to memorize a licence plate by making the letters and numbers into words in a sentence.

Since the days of oral history, many different mnemonic devices have been used to help people remember important things: structured verse, allegory, metaphor, and of course the simple rhyme. But as we became a literate society, the simplest of these powerful cultural devices was relegated to song, bad poetry, nursery rhymes... and... oh, yeah! Advertising:

Having a child now, and watching how easy it is for him to memorize AC/DC lyrics (I'll never forget when he burst into "Let's Get it Up" in the grocery store) I have been re-evaluating old ad methods that I once thought played out. And so when the City of Ottawa challenged us to come up with a campaign to brand the local promotion of Environment Canada's Air Quality Health Index, I drew inspiration from my Mom, Schoolhouse Rock, and Canadian songstress Feist:

(Let's pause for a fanboy crush moment.)

Anyway, the AQHI is a new measure of air quality and how it affects health. From EC:

It is a health protection tool that is designed to help you make decisions to protect your health by limiting short-term exposure to air pollution and adjusting your activity levels during increased levels of air pollution. It also provides advice on how you can improve the quality of the air you breathe.

This index pays particular attention to people who are sensitive to air pollution and provides them with advice on how to protect their health during air quality levels associated with low, moderate, high and very high health risks.

One of the chalenges of this campaign is that there is another index, the Air Quality Index, that also measures pollution levels. It goes to 100 and above. But our job was to differentiate AQHI as a simple tool to help people in general — and especially people at risk — plan their daily activities. We took the scale of ten, and broke it into four easy, colour-coded pieces, and started planting the scale all over town:

This is a fairly modest-budget campaign, so your tax dollars are working quite hard on this one. Now, we're working on a social media strategy to help spread the word over the summer. While it is still in development, you can visit the AQHI Facebook Page and "like" it to sign up for AQHI updates and news.

So, hopefully, people will know what to do the next time manmade smog, climate, or Quebec forest fires cause the air to look like this:

That was a nine, my friends. A NINE.

Next time that happens (hopefully not soon), I'll heed the AQHI number and take the bus instead of burning out my lungs by walking to work.


  1. Heard the commercial this morning on Hot 89.9 and thought it was great! It's so catchy and easy to remember. I think it's going to have great sticking power, especially with parents. Another great promo. Congrats.

  2. Thanks, SaRa!

    My wife is a schoolteacher, and she had much the same reaction.