Monday, August 13, 2012


Okay, so I intended to write this blog post about the newest information circulating on the H3N2v flu that has picked up significantly this summer. Because that seems pretty important and scary as we approach flu season.

But instead, I find myself compelled to write about Zombies.

Almost two years ago now, a group of undergraduate students in the VRG conducted a survey about flu and flu vaccine practices among undergraduates. The survey consisted of multiple choice as well as fill-in-the-blank questions that elicited narrative responses, allowing the students to do both quantitative and qualitative analyses on the results (the resulting poster can be found on the VRG website here).

One of their observations from the narrative responses was about Zombies. A couple of the narrative responses in the survey said something about vaccines turning people into Zombies, which they then connected to the movie I am Legend, where (if I recall correctly) a cancer vaccine turns people into Aombies. Or something like that. At the time I remember us all initially thinking that the respondents, while clearly trying to just be funny or mess around with the survey, had really hit on a connection that was surprising--that there were other fictional connections between diseases, viruses, and vaccines and Zombies.

So, imagine my surprise when I was looking for information on the CDC's website the other day on H3N2v and saw a blog category called "Zombies" alongside other completely serious categories like "Anthrax" and "Zoonotic Disease."

Apparently they have used a Zombie attack as a preparedness scenario, with the recommendation that people "Make a Plan. Get a Kit. Be Prepared." for a Zombie attack, which is the same recommendation FEMA has for any kind of preparedness. Here are just a few of the links on the CDC and Zombies:

And, in case you have ever thought, "Wow, I wish that the CDC would write a novella about the possibility of a Zombie attack and what I might do to be prepared for it," you will be happy to learn that there IS a Zombie novella written by the CDC about the possibility of a Zombie attack and what you might do to be prepared for it:

So, I thought all of this was kind of strange, but I know that some people are kind of fascinated with Zombies and like to talk about them a lot and watch movies about them and things like that, so I thought it was maybe just some strange person's sense of humor driving this odd basis for a preparedness scenario.

But, apparently this was a big thing earlier this summer (which I somehow missed). Of course, Colbert has the best coverage of the story:

But it also got coverage from some other news outlets:

I guess a rash of crimes that involved cannibalism somehow awakened fear of Zombie-like behavior, which then somehow got connected to the "tongue-in-cheek" Zombie scenarios created by the CDC, which then necessitated a STATEMENT by the CDC that it “does not know of a virus or condition that would reanimate the dead (or one that would present zombie-like symptoms)” (quotation from RT article).

I don't know what I have to say about all of that just yet, but I end on the following reflection:

In a presentation I did for the Association for Business Communication (ABC) three years ago, I analyzed FEMA's "World Upside Down" PSA, which uses the metaphor of a world "turned upside down" as the impetus for encouraging families to be prepared for disaster.

In that analysis, I argued that the nonspecific nature of the outcome of that metaphorical emergency was rhetorically problematic--that it kept the idea of disaster preparedness in a fictional realm whereby people could not imagine that they would be victims of a major disaster or what the consequences of that disaster might be. Without relaying some kind of situated exigence for disaster preparedness (like, do you know what would happen to your pet if you had to evacuate your home in an emergency? or do you have the materials to shelter-in-place? or how would you reunite with your family after an emergency during a work day?), the PSA relays a general message that something bad could happen at any time, and it might be a good idea to have supplies around in case that happens. Most people know that already, I argued.

But, was I wrong? The Zombie scenario seems to do another version of the same thing, although I admit it's much catchier. You see the widget or poster or t-shirt with "Prepare for the Zombie Apocalypse" on it, and it least it catches your eye. Makes you say "what?" Creates an impression, a curiosity that the "world upside down" doesn't. But, in the end, does it produce the same, imagistic, metaphorical, but ultimately unrelatable effect? Does it venture too far into the ridiculous to be taken seriously? I'd be curious to ask them what kinds of responses they have gotten to these campaigns. I wonder if maybe my assessment is too harsh--that maybe it is better to create a nonspecific notion of preparedness in peoples' minds so that they can apply the need to prepare to whatever they think is most pressing or most applicable to their situation.

This has to be a question across any kind of preparedness issue, whether it is disaster preparedness or public health. It also asks a basic question of the Health Belief Model: what motivates people to take the officially-sanctioned actions to protect themselves? In rhetoric, we might ask, what combination of ethos, pathos, and logos will persuade the public to believe official recommendations and be motivated to take action? Will a believable spokesperson help? A fear tactic? Data on disaster likelihood and related necessities? With both "world upside down" and Zombies, we've abandoned the world of logos and possibly ethos and are left with pathos--either the impetus to be afraid of or laugh at the scenario presented that rouses the audience to attentiveness. And it might do that. But does it promote action? A genuine question, for me at least.

1 comment:

Starling said...

I was fascinated by this publication, too. My take on it is that it's a way to establish the agency's ethos to a particularly social media-sensitive, almost anti-government (or, more realistically, anti-authority) audience. The goal of the publication is to prove that the CDC as an agency has a sense of humor in addition to its extensive disciplinary knowledge, and is not some authoritarian enemy. The zombie info was never intended to be serious, just a way of luring (and I'm using that word tongue-in-cheek myself) audiences to the website. Presumably, once audiences are there, they will click on the other, more serious information. Or, at least, these audiences will develop a positive mental model of the agency and be more likely to follow their directions in case of an actual emergency. This is speculation, of course: I would like to see some numbers regarding clicks to other pages that originate from the zombie page.

Of course, after the novella was published, the whole Florida "ZOMBIEZZ!!" mess happened, and the CDC was facing a completely different context for its novella. I didn't realize they'd had to officially deny the existence of zombies - there's probably an entirely separate blog post in that.

P.S. I'm pretty excited that you're blogging, and I'm planning to be "here" frequently to talk shop.