Campaign pushes children to brush teeth

What do gerbils on a train have to do with oral health?

Take a look at this video to find out.

The ad is part of a new Kids’ Healthy Mouths public service campaign launched this week by a formidable partnership: the nonprofit Ad Council, which harnesses the powers of Madison Avenue for worthy causes (think Smokey Bear and “Friends Don’t Let Friends Drive Drunk”) and the Partnership for Healthy Mouths, Healthy Lives, a coalition of 35 dental organizations.

The public service announcements, distributed to media outlets nationwide on Aug 14, look silly.

But they are designed to help address a serious problem: widespread dental decay that particularly burdens poor and minority children (PDF).

According to an Ad Council survey, 60 percent of parents with children ages 12 or younger reported that they did not regularly help their children brush their teeth or check to make sure they had done a good job. In addition, close to one-third (31 percent) of the parents reported arguing with their kids at least once a week about brushing their teeth.

Parents said that, on average, their children wasted more than two hours each day on things they considered silly or unnecessary, such as playing video games, texting, or watching an online video.

The lighthearted gerbil spot and other related television and print advertisements in English and Spanish dramatize that particular finding before delivering an earnest plea for prevention: “Brushing for two minutes now can save your child from severe tooth pain later. Two minutes, twice a day. They have the time.”

The multimedia effort “aims to educate parents and caregivers about the importance of a healthy mouth and motivate them to modify their children’s behaviors through simple, low-cost, preventive strategies,” said Pamela J. Tolson, executive director of the American Association of Public Health Dentistry, one of the dental organizations backing the campaign.

“We’re primarily aiming to reach parents and caregivers of children 0-12 years of age, with an emphasis on low income and minority (Hispanic and African American) parents and caregivers,”  added Tolson in a statement.

The public service announcements direct parents to a website,, which offers information about oral health and a selection of two-minute videos provided by Cartoon Network and My Kazoo that children can watch on smart phones or other mobile devices while brushing.

The campaign gives a wide berth to the fear factor that can turn people off from addressing oral health needs.

Rob Baiocco, an executive creative director of Grey New York which helped mastermind the campaign, told Jane L. Levere, of The New York Times, the agency steered clear of anything “scary.”

“We wanted it to be a positive thing, we didn’t want parents to tune out the message. Oral pain is the motivating reason behind all of this – no parent wants his kid to have pain,” Baiocco was quoted as saying.

Health and advertising experts offered varying assessments of the campaign to the Times.

A pediatric dentist said the ads were a “good start” but said they should focus more on actual brushing techniques. Other experts wondered whether poor and overworked parents would have the time to dedicate to the two-minute brushing protocol, with or without the help of the two-minute Scooby Doo and Bugs Bunny cartoons.

Mary OttoMary Otto, AHCJ’s topic leader on oral health is writing blog posts, editing tip sheets and articles and gathering resources to help our members cover oral health care.

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Jay A. Winston, director of the Center for Health Communication at the Harvard School of Public Health told the Times that America needs a far more ambitious campaign.

“We can no longer afford the luxury of creating a series of disconnected campaigns, each of which addresses a very small fragment of what’s known to be needed for healthy child development,” he said. “What’s really needed in a unified campaign about raising healthy children.”

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