A core objective of journalism is to spread information for the benefit of society — a goal that is increasingly carried out online these days. But sometimes an old-fashioned print newspaper is still the most powerful engine for public good — in highly unexpected ways.
Earlier this year, advertising powerhouse Leo Burnett in Sri Lanka partnered with the Sinhala-language newspaper Mawbima in a campaign to fight dengue fever. Together they created what could be the world’s first mosquito-repellent newspaper.
The World Health Organization estimates there are 50 to 100 million dengue infections each year across the globe. Dengue is spread by mosquito bites and causes flu-like symptoms in humans. There is no preventive vaccine for dengue and early treatment is key for lowering the risk of complications or death. If the illness gets out of control and becomes “severe dengue,” it can be lethal. A sizeable 40 percent of people in the world are at risk of infection, and it’s especially prominent in tropical and sub-tropical climates.
So in Sri Lanka, Leo Burnett and Mawbima targeted the time of day when mosquitoes strike most often: in the early mornings and evenings. That’s also the same time people generally read the newspaper. Put two and two together and you have the makings of a solution: Infuse the newspaper’s ink with citronella essence, a natural insect repellent. The citronella-scented newspaper wards off pesky mosquitoes while people get their news.
The first of these citronella-powered newspapers were sold on World Health Day — April 7 this year — and were a huge success. The papers sold out by 10 a.m., representing a 30 percent sales increase, and readership of the newspaper jumped by 300,000. That means more people were getting informed while being protected from a dangerous disease. Talk about serving the common good. Throughout the preceding National Dengue Week, the innovative campaign also included educational articles in Mawbima about other ways to prevent the disease, as well as citronella-covered posters installed at bus stops.
Until we have smell-o-vision for our computers, digital media organizations simply could never pull off this type of campaign. And while developed countries have audiences with reading habits that have moved online, many parts of the world’s population don’t have the means for digital access — making physical media highly valued and heavily relied upon.
Leo Burnett didn’t detail whether the outreach in Sri Lanka would continue or how sustainable it is financially. A project like this might also make sense across Central and South America, Africa and Southeast Asia — all places at high risk for dengue. On a single day, this Sri Lankan campaign created quite the buzz. But we wouldn’t see long-term effects from an initiative like this unless the paper was citronella-infused every day. Whatever the case, it’s a refreshing approach to a global health concern.
So the next time you complain when the ink from your Sunday paper gets on your fingers, imagine the potential of that ink to save lives — and perhaps you’ll be less bugged.