Then there’s loveLife, a government-financed South African public health program aimed at stopping the spread of AIDS by encouraging teens to use condoms and practice safe sex. LoveLife took a page from corporate advertising promotions and created a hip marketing campaign to convey the message that it’s cooler to act responsibly than behave badly. The unlikely inspiration for this campaign was the successful brand relaunch of the soft drink Sprite, which centered on creating an “aspirational lifestyle brand.” Like Sprite, loveLife hired teens to recruit their peers to attend brand-sponsored sports events, concerts, and other activities, creating a club they’d want to be part of and draw more kids into. By 2006, Rosenberg reports, loveLife had become one of the country’s top 10 brands, made recognizable throughout the country with 1,200 billboards and constant TV, radio, and web exposure, along with a widely used telephone hotline. What made loveLife work for her, one young woman told Rosenberg, was that “It wasn’t about HIV. It was about me. No one is wagging a finger at me, just young people, peers, telling me the way you’ve lived your life is not good, and we’re going to help you.”
In Rosenberg’s description, what’s most novel about loveLife is the route by which it caught these teens’ attention. What made it work was that the marketing hoopla and events got kids talking directly to each other, face to face, in small groups, and with counselors. Change happened not just because of bread and circuses and billboards, but because of the person-to-person connections these things promoted.
In addition, Rosenberg describes publicly funded teen anti-smoking programs in the United States, including Florida’s Students Working Against Tobacco (SWAT) and South Carolina’s Against the Haze. As with loveLife, these programs steered clear of lecturing and fear-mongering. Instead, they tapped into a generational dynamic: teen outrage at being lied to, and manipulated by, hypocritical adults, represented by Big Tobacco. As a result, the SWAT campaign’s public slogan was “Truth.” Its public service ads never overtly stated, “Don’t Smoke,” but the message was implicit, and between 1999 and 2007 in Florida, the number of middle and high school students who smoked was cut in half.
Beyond social justice and public health issues, Rosenberg turns her attention to how social cures benefit religious and spiritual communities. She describes efforts to develop a greater sense of community and deeper religious commitment by Willow Creek Community Church, a megachurch in Illinois with a congregation of 21,000. Ironically, the church’s success in attracting so many parishioners had made it unfriendly for those seeking a more personal connection with their faith, their spirituality, and each other—the kind of experience that often develops in smaller congregations. To recreate that small-town feeling within their megachurch, the church’s leadership began encouraging the members to form small neighborhood groups. Participants soon found that getting together several times each week—for a barbecue, to jog around the park, to share time with the kids, or engage in Bible study—helped bind members together as an extended family far more than just seeing each other at church on Sunday. From Rosenberg’s accounts, it seems that for isolated suburbanites in search of connection, finding a small group of likeminded coreligionists is almost a revelation. However, it struck me that, to many, the commune-like togetherness that worked for the families that Rosenberg focuses on here might feel cloying rather than liberating.
Rosenberg is at her best as a reporter, and she originally wrote about several of these programs for The New York Times and National Geographic. Perhaps that’s why the book seems to lack a narrative arc, reading instead like a rambling series of journalistic adventures, loosely threaded together under the general heading of “social cure,” a label that fits some examples better than others. The Willow Creek Church, for instance, is less about finding a social cure than about creating a community that can accommodate the needs of more than 20,000 people. Similarly, Otpor is a fascinating example of political resistance, but Rosenberg’s lengthy disquisition on the subject started to sound like a continuation of her previous book, The Haunted Land, about the fall and aftermath of communism in Eastern Europe.
Clearly, Rosenberg is committed to bringing attention to new ways to fix our world. (In fact, she currently writes the blog “Fixes” on just this theme for The New York Times.) In an age of rampant cynicism, her optimism is thoroughly refreshing, even if she does start sounding like a policy wonk zealously rolling out ideas for reforming just about everything and everyone—even those who say “I’m not a joiner.”
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