The Hepatitis C Campaign in Harlem: Taking it to the Streets

Vertex Pharmaceuticals, maker of INCIVEK, an FDA approved treatment for Hepatitis C, is sponsoring a New York City-wide guerilla marketing campaign to promote awareness about the disease. Started on Sept. 13, big yellow C’s have popped up all over New York City. At first glance, the C’s are giving locals pause for reflection. “Man on the Street: New Yorkers’ Reactions to the Big Yellow Cs” HepC.TV’s You Tube channel depicts New Yorkers reacting quizzically: Does it stand for Cancer? Cholesterol? Vitamin C? Upon closer inspection, however, passersby can read an alarming statistic inscribed on the inside of the letter that three out of four million people are infected by Hepatitis C and don’t even know it.  

In the age of digital marketing, guerilla or street marketing tactics are necessary to implement community growth and instigate change. Such a visceral and colorful ad campaign, like the big yellow c, has increased community awareness surrounding Hepatitis C in a way that no online campaign ever could. Every cause now seems to have a Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter page. It is hard not to become immune to such a barrage of public service announcements transmitted electronically. With the press of a button, you too can add like and link to a foundation’s page - but somewhere along the way the human connection is lost. This transition from physical to digital outreach seems especially ironic given that communicable diseases like Hepatitis C require human interaction in order to spread. The return to grassroots marketing, as shown by the tactics used in the yellow c campaign, demonstrates the need for human interaction despite the electronic walls that have obscured the fundamental need for interfacing.

As a widespread health epidemic, Hepatitis C has become a national problem but it is a battle fought in individual communities. Organizations, like Harlem United, are community resources that provide education, consultation, and testing services, but they also facilitate a feeling of collective solidarity in what can seem like a very individual struggle.

In an effort to return to grassroots campaigning, the yellow C campaign has sprung up recently in Harlem. Big plastic C’s adorning buildings like the one on 116th street and major landmarks such as Sylvia’s restaurant have popped up all over the neighborhood. The C’s, meant to promote Hepatitis C awareness, are certainly drawing more reaction than any banner or pop up ad online. While the discussion does continue on blogs and web TV channels, its origin lies definitively at the grassroots level.

Most importantly, however, the C’s are a physical manifestation of a disease that statistically speaking flies under the radar. In an effort to combat this sleeper disease, the yellow C’s represent a return to street culture that is by the people and for the people. Similar to local graffiti artists, this aggressive form of advertising is unapologetic and can’t be concocted by a group of online marketing experts and analysts. The yellow C campaign brings the conversation back to the community effort behind the cause and is a necessary tactic to rally communities like Harlem around its citizens and outreach programs.  

There is certainly a national stage for well known figures to raise awareness about the disease. Natalie Cole is one such spokesperson who works for “Tune into Hep C”  by offering up both her experience as an individual living with the disease as well as her voice for charity events. However, sometimes the message can seem so overwhelming, like the many Hollywood galas thrown for HIV, that the message gets drowned out under the guise of charity fundraisers. The yellow C is a reminder that in any given city block in your neighborhood, people are living with the disease everyday.

Kidneynotes.com, a medical blog where Hepatitis C features prominently, goes by the motto: “notes on the intersection of medicine and technology.” This is very intuitive and appropriate for the Hepatitis C campaign because medical technology has reached a stage where it must serve a purpose beyond advancing treatments so far that it is out of reach from its patients. As the Peter Weill Cornell Medical College upholds, “The Center has added an enhanced component of public health and epidemiology . . . this is the only comprehensive, multidisciplinary center dedicated to the study of hepatitis C in the tri-state area.”

Mission statements from institutions like Cornell Medical College foster a fundamental exchange between ideas and community. However, without programs such as Harlem United’s yellow C campaign embodied in the physical manifestation of a public service announcement, the subsequent viral message fails to resonate for over-stimulated audiences. The yellow C campaign in communities like Harlem are further reminders that internet connectivity is an informative resource for raising awareness about key issues, but the most effective campaigning is up close and personal.  

 Photo Credit: Zaldylmg