Oct 5 2009 By James Shepherd
He’s mucus-green, persistent and intent on world domination, but the most important aspect of the University of Chester’s new, innovative public health character is that ‘Viral Man’ is proving such a hit with staff and students that he has taken on a life of his own.
As the personification of Swine Flu, students, dressed in a striped jumper and gloves covered in spikes and wearing a wild wig and green face paint, are spreading key messages about the importance of good respiratory and hand hygiene, how the virus affects sufferers and where to seek treatment.
Appropriately for a ‘viral’ marketing campaign, Viral Man has a growing following on his own facebook site www.facebook.com/viralman, on which he cites his favourite music as ‘Coldplay’ and one of his preferred films as Outbreak. Among the interactive comments, he has even received a mock marriage proposal from one ‘friend’, although he describes his relationship status as ‘complicated.’
Viral Man is a familiar sight across both campuses and in other University-owned premises. In addition to a series of posters, echoing the national ‘Catch it, Bin it, Kill it’ Department of Health messages and the helpline details, he appears as ‘wallpaper’ on open access computers.
Professor Tim Wheeler, Vice-Chancellor, said: “Viral Man is generating quite a buzz at a time when the University is at its busiest, welcoming new students and staff, and when the country as a whole is bracing itself for the second wave of the pandemic. Some real imagination has inspired the campaign, which is both attention-grabbing and fun.”
The University intranet features an interview with the character, who expresses his frustration as his power to infect as many people as possible is constantly thwarted by people giving him a bad reputation and using tissues and anti-bacterial gel. This prompted spontaneous applause when it was shown during Induction Week to new students, who were given free Viral Man keyrings and stickers.
Jayne Dodgson, Director of Corporate Communications, said: “There’s some reverse psychology involved. Although common sense dictates everyone should be wary of Swine Flu, Viral Man is so charismatic that people are being drawn to him and therefore take more notice of the serious advice which they have seen or heard hundreds of times in association with the national flu campaign and may have started to become ‘immune’ to.”
Comic video clips of Viral Man demonstrating how he causes six of the most common Swine Flu symptoms in unsuspecting victims will shortly be viewed on plasma screens around the University and the campaign logo (seen above) will be on drink mats in Students’ Union bars.
Gay Rabie, the University’s Pandemic Flu Co-ordinator, is currently leading an EU –funded academic programme, designed to ensure that European countries are better prepared for outbreaks of Human Seasonal Influenza and sits on local and national committees overseeing Pandemic Flu prevention and control.
She added: “As predicted, the number of cases in the general population is starting to escalate again and as a large organisation, the University has been planning contingencies for this eventuality for some time. Viral Man complements a wide range of measures including providing anti-bacterial gel dispensers in all main buildings, encouraging departments to use anti-bacterial wipes to clean shared equipment and prioritising workloads to accommodate potential sickness absence.”
The University commissioned four recent students, Neil Martin and Hannah Bradshaw from Graphics Design and Will Bollen and Jerry Clark from Advertising, two of whom have just won an international award for one of their projects, to devise the Swine Flu awareness-raising campaign.
Their brief was to highlight issues around the virus to respond to the evolving situation nationally and promote the National Pandemic Flu Service to students and staff.
One of the team, Neil Martin, said: “Through developing the campaign we not only learnt a considerable amount about Swine Flu, which we were then able to share in a user-friendly way, but also built up a body of work which forms part of our portfolios as we embark on our creative careers after graduation.”