Spooky Season has already swept across the country. We see 12-foot skeletons in yards, pumpkin-flavored drinks on menus, and TV public service announcements (PSAs) with a Halloween theme.

But this is an odd year -- we need to wear protective masks umder the fun masks. So what are public health officials doing to get people's attention to protect themselves and others?

In Philadelphia, zombies are spreading the word. The City of Philadelphia has posted a video on Twitter of scary Halloween masks to promote mask wearing during the pandemic. The video is part of the city’s #maskupPHL campaign.

“Humor can be good at getting your attention if it's done in the right way, . . . and getting your attention is the first step in making a difference,” said Jessica Fishman, PhD. Dr. Fishman is a behavioral and social scientist with the University of Pennsylvania’s Perelman School of Medicine and Annenberg School for Communication.

And the federal government is getting into the act. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services is running a “Boo to the Flu” campaign. Although that catchy slogan may not communicate much, it is easy to remember. And, as long as people also remember to get their flu vaccine, it is a success.

Using Halloween and the spookier side of life as a jumping off point for public health is not new.

In 2011 the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention launched their preparedness blog, titled: “Preparedness 101: Zombine Apocalypse.” The site told readers how to prepare for any public health emergency, from zombies to hurricanes and pandemics.

“We posted it on Monday. By Wednesday, the server crashed," said Dave Daigle, spokesperson for the CDC’s Office of Public Health Preparedness and Response, in a 2011 article about the website in The Atlantic . "I thought it would get more pickup if I used zombies . . . but what we're seeing is incredible."

He said that emergency preparedness is not always the easiest topic to get people excited about. By combining useful information with zombies, the site saw more traffic than ever.

Dr. Fishman might agree. Getting a campaign to go viral can be a good thing. “They can kind of take a life on their own among friends and other forms of popular culture that leverages them even more broadly than the primary campaign,” she said.

For those who are curious, the CDC recommends these things when preparing for zombies, as well as hurricanes and pandemics.

  • Water (1 gallon per person per day)
  • Food (stock up on non-perishable items that you eat regularly)
  • Medications (this includes prescription and non-prescription meds)
  • Tools and Supplies (utility knife, duct tape, battery powered radio, etc.)
  • Sanitation and Hygiene (household bleach, soap, towels, etc.)
  • Clothing and Bedding (a change of clothes for each family member and blankets)
  • Important documents (copies of your driver’s license, passport, and birth certificate to name a few)
  • First Aid supplies (although you’re a goner if a zombie bites you, you can use these supplies to treat basic cuts and lacerations that you might get during a tornado or hurricane )

The site has not been updated but is still drawing new viewers.

On March 25 of this year, a reader named Teresa posted this rave comment on the website: “I love this! Great way to get young Scouts into e-prep without too much trauma.” Another reader, Clisara, wrote: “This is purely genius of CDC to use this fictional hot favorite to address serious life issues such as emergency preparedness.”

Do these slightly silly campaigns ever backfire?

There was an infamous case a few years ago, Dr. Fishman recalled.

“The video showed a lot of kids looking high and gave the sense that this is a pervasive problem in America, a lot of drug use,” she said, “and those who viewed this PSA more often are more likely to think, ‘Oh, gosh, there's a lot of kids doing drugs. I'm gonna do drugs.’”

That’s right. An anti-drug campaign made more people do drugs.

After a campaign has your attention, “You want the message to be motivating you in the right way, instead of doing the opposite.” The risk with a funny campaign can be that people remember the joke but forget the important message.

There is an actual science to getting these things right. Sometimes campaigns are dreamed up by advertising agencies. “They'll just kind of spitball creative ideas. It’s kind of like developing a vaccine in the basement without testing it. Sometimes you might get lucky, and it might work. Sometimes it will have no effect, and sometimes it might have dangerous effects,” said Dr. Fishman.

As for the CDC zombie campaign, Dr. Fishman wasn’t familiar with it, but she did say she has her own spooky side project. She is the author of Death Makes the News: How the Media Censor and Display the Dead, a book about the way that journalists cover death and dead bodies.

Sabrina Emms is a science journalist. She got her start as an intern at a health and science podcast out of Philadelphia public radio. Before that she worked as a researcher, looking at the way bones are formed. When out of the lab and away from her computer, she's moonlighted as a pig vet's assistant and a bagel baker.