Ebola and the Power of Stories: A Marketing Lesson

The nation’s reaction to the arrival of Ebola contains a powerful marketing lesson. While statistics get ignored, stories compel people to act.

When Ebola began spreading across West Africa a few months ago, there were some stories in the American press, but the public as a whole didn’t take much notice.

Photo Credit: EU Humanitarian Aid and Civil Protection via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: EU Humanitarian Aid and Civil Protection via Compfight cc

Americans began to pay attention when they heard the story of a Liberian man named Thomas Duncan, who landed in Dallas on a flight from Liberia and wound up dying of Ebola in Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital .

We got nervous when we heard the story of Nurse Nina Pham, who contracted Ebola while treating Duncan.

When we heard the story of Amber Vinson, another Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital nurse who flew from Ohio to Dallas while experiencing Ebola symptoms, we sprang into action. As I write this (and yes, this could change), we have a total of two people who are confirmed to have contracted Ebola in this country. Here’s what’s happened:

  • The plane she was on was taken out of service, and the crew was put on three weeks of paid leave.
  • Reports surfaced online of significant numbers of airline passengers wiping down their trays and armrests.
  • According to the New York Times:

…at least six schools in Texas and Ohio said they were shutting their doors because students or staff members had been on Ms. Vinson’s flight, or had flown on the same plane after she had. In Akron, Ohio, the Resnik Community Learning Center was closed for cleaning until Monday because a student’s parent had spent time with Ms. Vinson, school officials said.

The facts, at least those known as I write this, would argue against this sort of panic. We’re dealing with a virus that is contagious only under very specific circumstances. The odds of catching Ebola by sitting on a plane, or attending one of those schools, is incredibly tiny. The stories of these three people trump the statistics.

At the risk of trivializing what could still turn out to be a genuine national emergency, here’s the marketing lesson for those of us who make our living persuading people to act:

Nothing generates action more effectively than a good story.


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