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Dynamic Chiropractic – October 22, 2001, Vol. 19, Issue 22

Halloween and Other Ghoulish Things

By Louis Sportelli, DC
That dreaded notice arrived. "Your article for the October issue is due!" Writing about new topics each month can be very challenging, particularly when the subject you choose to write about may strike a sensitive chord.

With the "scary" holiday upon us, I thought I would examine the reasons why spines (as part of skeletons) are used as props or ornaments to scare people and conjure up images of death during Halloween season, and yet chiropractors use this same image in an attempt to show health and vitality. Perhaps we might consider if the utility of the spine as a health logo might not be appropriate any longer.

As doctors of chiropractic, we love spines. We have jewelry made in the image of spines; huge signs designed for our offices with spines on them (some are neon and move); spine keychains; spine pencils; many DCs incorporate spines on their stationery and business cards; and still others go so far as to have a "spinemobile" pick up patients who cannot find transportation (which incidentally is not a bad idea, except for the name of the vehicle).

Our love affair with spines may not engender the best image or create the most appealing relationship with our patients, or the public at large. Somehow the image of the heart used by cardiologists creates that warm, fuzzy feeling of love and warmth, caring and comfort, or valentines and cupids. It is indeed a fortunate symbol for the cardiologist or heart centers to incorporate, not to mention the American Heart Association. Rarely, however, are other organs or body parts used by health care professionals because of the fear or revulsion these other body parts conjure in the minds of the consuming public.

We could have some fun and imagine the American Association of Proctologists deciding on its logo, or perhaps the gastroenterologists deciding what part of the GI tract to display on their business cards. The dental profession keenly understands marketing, and rarely are teeth or cavities used by dentists in their advertisements or marketing materials. Rather, they depict the benefits of dental care - a beautiful smile - to convey the image of today's dental professional. Sell the benefit!

Marketers have long told the chiropractic profession that our image needs to be improved and modernized. There are some great books on marketing out today by some of the most successful gurus in the business. They focus on the needs of their clients, such as how people decide which car to drive; which book to read; which doctor to chose; how they select which movie to see; or which brand to buy. After all is said and done, it all comes back to what marketers term as "branding" and "buzz." The buzz in the marketplace can make or break a company, product or profession. Some statistics that have been validated in studies time and again are worth repeating:

  • Sixty-five percent of customers who bought Palm organizers told the maker of this device that they heard about it from other persons.

  • Friends and relatives are the number one source of information about places to visit, hotels to stay, and rental cars to use, according to the Travel Industry Association.

  • Fifty-three percent of moviegoers rely on recommendations in selecting a film to see, according to industry statistics.

  • Seventy percent of women surveyed by Self magazine cited family, friends or co-worker referral as factors in over-the-counter drug purchases.

The buzz, or word-of-mouth, is nothing new to the chiropractic community. Every survey we have done has demonstrated that 65-85 percent of the patients who seek chiropractic care do so via the word-of-mouth of satisfied patients. Without "word of mouth," there would be no chiropractic profession today.

Buzz is not about an elegant advertising campaign or some corny, clever, trinket-type giveaway. It is created in an invisible network that connects customers (patients) to each other. This invisible network is more powerful than any paid advertising or marketing program that a profession or individual doctor can afford. It is estimated that we are bombarded by 1,500 ads every day. People shield themselves by filtering out most of the messages of mass media, and rely instead on the word-of-mouth of friends. If the filters are tuning out chiropractic for whatever reason, nothing you do will penetrate that barrier; the more that is attempted, the more is rejected. Understanding what people want or are turned off by becomes critical to any successful campaign.

Chiropractic has been bombarded for almost half a century by an orchestrated campaign by political medicine in an attempt to prevent this nondrug, nonsurgical health care profession from gaining acceptance and public confidence. A well-crafted campaign connecting chiropractic with quackery and charlatanism reigned supreme during the 1960s. It was an effort to associate the chiropractor with a less-than-qualified health care professional.

The doctor of chiropractic utilizes spinal adjustments as the principal treatment method in an attempt to influence the nervous system, the immune system, and other innate body mechanisms to influence the restoration of health for the individual patient. It is easy to see why the connection between the spine and the chiropractor was made.

Back doctors, spine specialists, and other associations attached to the spine were naturally formed in the minds of the public by simply associating the approach of the DC with an anatomical part. Additionally, many incredible success stories, now supported by some research, involved the immediate elimination of pain and the restoration of a mechanical dysfunction that was debilitating to the individual, miraculously corrected by the administration of an adjustment to the spine; another miracle in the day of the chiropractor, another spine association.

The profession's fascination with the spine perhaps needs to be revisited, and perhaps we need to take a page from the dental image campaign that sells the benefits of the smile, or in the case of chiropractic, the benefits of health and wellness, rather than the images conjured up by visuals of a distorted scoliotic or straight spinal column.

Most early practitioners used spines made of real bone to educate patients. Remember the apprehension when you would approach the patient with a spine cuddled up under your arm, and the patient would be backing up against the wall? Finally, plastic models were developed, and still we had to tell patients up front, "Don't be afraid, Mrs. Jones, this is only a plastic model," and even then they did not like to touch the spine. Facial contortions, looks of disgust and fearful apprehension were always present. Some doctors even had full-body skeletons in their examination rooms and affectionately had pet names for them - amusing to the practitioner, but frightening to the patient, and most practitioners were oblivious to the image they were creating.

We have come a long way in our advancement of chiropractic and the collective image of the profession. Yet there are pockets of resistance, groups within the profession that are determined to use the image of the spine as the image of the profession, irrespective of our patients' reaction to this image.

If we have learned anything from years of focus groups, dozens of studies and advice from public relations professionals on building an image, it's that a brand is vital to the success of any company, product or profession. The number one brand in 2000 was Coca Cola, and 51 percent of the value of the company is attributed to the power of the brand and the buzz of the consumer. Billions of dollars are spent each year on building the brand. Even savvy companies like Nike and Coca Cola sometimes stumble because they fail to recognize that a brand is everything a company does - the information intended to be communicated, and the information actually communicated despite the best efforts of everyone. The brand is whatever consumers (our patients) think of when they see the word or logo; in this case, it's chiropractic's association with the spine.

During this Halloween season, is the image of chiropractic affected by the spooky, scary spine; a ghoulish, grotesque curvature; signs on chiropractic offices that evoke images of horror rather than health; or professional business cards that are designed by image-breakers rather than image-makers? Are newspaper advertisements destroying the "brand" chiropractic is trying to build, with text that suggests propaganda over professionalism? Are they using bait-and-switch schemes and programs, instead of being caring and concerned professionals seeking to help ease human suffering?

I don't know about you, but during Halloween I really didn't like people coming to the office asking to borrow the spine to use in a haunted house or as a prop for a scary situation. I would much rather have them conjure up an image of a concerned doctor of chiropractic, such as offering to x-ray the children's treat bags to be certain there are no hidden razors (it's sad we have to resort to that); giving out iridescent treat bags or armbands so the children can trick-or-treat safely; or sponsoring a Halloween float in the local community parade.

Spines are great to protect the nervous system and provide support for the human frame, but as far as being the logo for the profession, I think we might want to rethink what images spines conjure up in the minds of the vast majority of individuals who do not use our services, but are affected by our brand or image. Take some time today and ask your patients what they think of when you show them a spine.

I don't know about you, but I'm concerned when I think of our image in many circles of influence. How about you? Have you thought about your image lately? Does it send a chill up your spine?

Louis Sportelli,DC
Palmerton, Pennsylvania

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