Observation Deck

#Drugs

Mon, Apr 14th, 2003 05:00 by Hyena Roti ARTICLE

Maybe it was a moment of true cosmic cohesion. Maybe it was my innate grasp of the human condition. Or maybe it was the pot I had just smoked.

Either way, as I strolled the streets of my fair city the other day, a few things came to may attention.

Firstly, I passed through the local Chinatown, with all its bustling throngs, were shopkeepers and vendors of every kind plied their wares along the sidewalks. However, amongst the merchants and items for sale, were peddlers of spiritual salvation. There were two brands available on that particular Spring day, pitched by two clutches of mongers, on opposing street corners.

The first group were the Falun Gong crowd. I know something about their beliefs and plight, but their sales-pitch was in Chinese so I missed the thrust of their marketing. When I crossed the street I came upon a gathering of Aryan-looking lads, each with the trademark black name badge of the Mormons. What surprised me, as I passed the "Boys From Brazil, Utah", was that I couldn't understand their promotional spiel either - each one of them was pattering away in Chinese as well.

It dawned upon me that the Chinese are a huge potential market for groups of any sort. The nation of China, economically speaking, has been considered a sleeping giant (which would eventually reap great profits) for more than a century now. Its people - and, in particular, the diaspora no longer under authoritarian control - must be viewed the same way evangelically. After decades of state-enforced atheism, the Chinese would appear a veritable 'promised land' for any preacher. (For the moment, we will ignore the age-old relationship between religious and economic interests.)

And then, being surrounded by Chinese, came a contemporary image. Someone was wearing a surgical mask, to protect them from SARS. (I assumed it was to prevent SARS and not that the person was hawking curb-side medical procedures.)

It occurred to me that only a few weeks ago none of us had ever heard of SARS, but now it's all the rage. And why is that? Is it because pneumonia is unknown? No, everyone's heard of it. Is it that foreign diseases have never affected us before? No - a Spanish flu variant killed 20-odd million people worldwide in 1918. So why has this (relatively new) Chinese plague taken off like wildfire, even bumping the war in Iraq off the front page?

Then it hit me like a revelation: Successful re-branding and marketing.

We North Americans love acronyms. We follow the NHL, NBA and NFL. We tune into CBC, ABC, NBC, CNN and more. We dig eating at KFC, before heading home to watch the WWE (or a good FBI flick on TMN). If we can get our mouths around an acronym, it's already sold.

Since AIDS, any disease, syndrome or symptom has needed some catchy name -preferably an acronym - to make the headlines and really stick with the public.

And SARS has it all:

It's easy to remember - I recall numerous people calling the "Norwalk virus" the "Norfolk virus";

It's easy to say - "Mad Cow" was great for "Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy" (since "BSE" sounds like a place where stocks are traded), but humans got the unpronounceable "variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease" and the acronym "vCJD";

It's easy to spell - forget "Necrotizing Fasciitis"...even "Flesh-Eating Disease" had too many letters;

It's geographically neutral - unlike the "West Nile Virus" and it's Arab connotations;

It's all upper case - as opposed to E. coli.

It became evident to me that SARS is the best example of medical re-branding since leprosy became "Hansen's Disease". You just knew that the creative department at the World Health Organization was up all night on that one. I could see it.

I could even see SARS' coincidental arrival in the headlines just as the war in Iraq was turning sour (from a media point of view), allowing the secret cadre of true world leaders, sitting on their grassy knolls, to divert international attention until things got back on track.

Maybe that was just the pot.

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