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Can Watching Cartoons Make You Healthier?

Cartoons and other visual media can serve as an effective tool for delivering important health messages. Scientists and artists discuss the value of visual arts for public health education.

Published September 25, 2013

Can Watching Cartoons Make You Healthier?

If your're a cartoon fan, this might make you love them even more: The National Library of Medicine has a decades-spanning cartoon collection! Almost since the invention of the medium, cartoon animation has been used as a tool in public health campaigns. "It's a powerful technology for forming public opinion...It [doesn't] just reason with the audience, it recruit[s] the audience's emotions," says National Library of Medicine Historian Dr. Michael Sappol in the video Cartoon Medicine Show: Collection of the National Library of Medicine.

The films were used to convey public health messages about a wide range of issues, from dental hygiene to malaria prevention to war-time psychological concerns. They're made by and feature major talents, including Dr. Seuss, Frank Capra (who later directed It's a Wonderful Life), and Mel Blanc (the voice of Bugs Bunny and other classic characters). They also speak volumes about the political priorities of the times during which they were made (about 1920-1960), and provide a fascinating window onto changing cultural and scientific norms.

Similar themes are explored in the exhibit Graphic Alert-AIDS Posters from Around the World, currently on display at the NYU Langone Medical Center's MSB Gallery. The posters, like the NLM cartoons, convey a variety of messages, including how HIV is—and isn't—transmitted, reminders to engage in safe sex, and appeals to treat people with the disease with compassion rather than as outcasts. "The design community has a history of applying communication techniques to try to get people to change their behavior in the form of advertising," says artist and exhibition curator Adrienne Klein. "These posters are an example of my community using its talents to encourage healthy practices, education, and care."

Visual media have the advantage of being able to leverage aesthetics and emotions to capture attention and convey complex concepts in a concise and memorable package. "It's a show versus tell issue," says Katie McKissick, aka Beatrice the Biologist, who teaches biology with comic panels. "You can tell people a million times to, say, finish their antibiotic course, but that won't necessarily sink in. Comics are a great way to show things from a new or hypothetical perspective that can engage people in different and, sometimes, more effective ways."

Humor is another powerful tool. "It draws people in and helps to break down barriers," says Klein. It's an especially effective way to communicate about subjects that may be intimidating or embarrassing, such as potentially frightening health concerns or challenging topics. "I try to take into account the multiple viewpoints of people who might look at a comic. Science humor can sometimes be a little 'inside jokey' or exclusive," says McKissick. "I try to draw comics so that someone who knows the concept will think it's funny, and someone who doesn't will find it funny and learn something." (For a vintage example of humor and art being used in biology education, check out Bell Labs' Hemo the Magnificent, from 1957.)

"Great, but does it work?" one might reasonably ask.  This has in fact been the subject of a large body of research. According to this Journal of Heath Communication literature review,

"The overriding conclusion is the following: The literature is beginning to amass evidence that targeted, well-executed health mass media campaigns can have small-to-moderate effects not only on health knowledge, beliefs, and attitudes, but on behaviors as well, which can translate into major public health impact given the wide reach of mass media." 

"[Media] campaigns are frequently competing with factors such as pervasive product marketing, powerful social norms, and behaviors driven by addiction or habit," write Dr. Melanie Wakefield et al in this Lancet article. Even so, they "can produce positive changes or prevent negative changes in health-related behaviors across large populations" especially when implemented with "concurrent availability of required services and products, availability of community-based programs, and policies that support behavior change."

Interestingly, as technology provides new platforms for digital media, modes of communication are becoming increasingly interactive. This opens up a world of new approaches to health education and care, along with torrential flows of data on how people engage with and respond to media, such as health care apps. In this podcast, Dr. Robert Kaplan, Director of the National Institutes of Health Office of Behavioral and Social Sciences Research and Dr. Barbara Barry, research scientist with the Northeastern University Relational Agents Group, discuss the evolving role of technology in media-based health education. "We think that this is a new horizon, and we're in the very beginning stages of exploring how [digital media] might help us understand human behavior, help us modify human behavior, and ultimately contribute to better health outcomes," says Dr. Kaplan.

*Images by Beatrice the Biologist


Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in the articles on are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of the New York Academy of Sciences.