Public-ness and the CDC

13 March 2016 by Lisa Meloncon

One of my goals for 2016 was to blog more. While I’ve made progress on that front in a other places, I haven’t managed to work this blog into the regular rotation, but I’m desperately trying to find a way how. One of those ways was to get folks to write some things for it. And I do have a long overdue post from Erin Trauth (thank you, Erin) that I will post shortly, which is also related to the idea of the public.

In this case, “public” is one of our government agencies releasing information through a widespread social media campaign, and that information was completely and totally offensive among so many other things. Let’s call it a case of public communication gone entirely wrong.

Here’s the original for point of reference. Clicking on the image will open the fill size in a new window.


I had seen the original infographic on twitter, and it annoyed me. It was at that moment I did wish I had the time and energy to make some sort of rebuttal. But then I do remember simply shaking my head and thinking, “well, that’s just the CDC.” Needless to say they aren’t my favorite government agency and much of it has to do with the way they approach health communication. Add to that I teach on information design course where one of the main projects is an infographic. Needless to say, I’ll be using this case for a long time to come. 🙂

Anyway, no sooner had I started to move on, but a counter parody aimed at men popped up on Twitter. I loved it. And in the case of small worlds,  the fabulous Ashley Patriarca tweeted it out and mentioned that she went to high school with the creator of it. Ashley connected Chris and me and he was so kind and generous to answer a few questions about it.

Here’s his version (reposted here with his direct permission). Clicking on the image will open the fill size in a new window.


What follows is an email “interview” I did with Chris. I sent Chris just a few questions and asking him if I could post his responses here along with his creation.

All of this is speaks directly to the value of our field of the rhetoric of health and medicine. It took a look at language and purpose and audience and design and then spun it all on its head with a great, and super smart, critique. Enjoy Chris’ responses.

What made you take the time and energy to do this? 

Honestly, it didn’t take that much time and energy. Just a couple of hours on a Saturday afternoon. At least, it didn’t seem like some huge effort, so much as a fun way to play around in Adobe for a little while.

I’d been rolling the idea around for a couple of days, since the CDC issued its drinking warning for women. There was a lot of commentary on my online news streams — Facebook, news sites, etc. — about how ridiculous it was for a government organization to essentially be telling women that drinking was the reason they were getting pregnant unintentionally (even though, apparently, drinking also makes it harder to get pregnant).

It’s just been really striking to me over the past couple of years how much more you’re hearing about the issue of double-standards between men and women on issues such as this. But even more striking, and promising, is how many more people are acknowledging that it’s the case, actually listening to women (and male allies), and responding with attempts at positive change.

People you’d never have directly tied to any sort of feminist movement (and I’d probably be included in that, to be fair) are now saying, doing, and promoting things that even a few years ago would have been considered pretty radical. So, to me, that’s a good thing.

At any rate, after reading a few articles on the original CDC guidance and talking about it with my girlfriend Emily, we both felt so frustrated that, once again, this infographic was missing the point …

Instead of “women shouldn’t drink because men can do bad things to them,” it should be “people shouldn’t do bad things to other people.” Or even on the topic of men and alcohol, why not “men shouldn’t drink because they’ll do bad things to other people”? Place the blame where it belongs, and don’t put the impetus on women to limit how they want to live because of others’ acts.

And while this infographic is a parody, I noticed after I made it that if you read it out of context, it’s really not funny at all. Every point on there is pretty straightforward, valid advice that needs to be addressed to a lot of men in our society … The vast majority of physically violent acts are carried out by men, and it’s often sparked or exacerbated by alcohol(ism).

So why isn’t anyone spending their time and effort (and money) on stopping that? Maybe it’s not the CDC’s job, but you know, it’s probably also not really their job to take an infographic about the dangers of alcohol for pregnant women and turn it into a moral crusade against all those whiskey-chugging floozies getting themselves raped and probably having to get a drive-through abortion because they’re so irresponsible.

It’s not really a groundbreaking idea, but the more we talk about it, the more normal that viewpoint becomes, the more likely things are to change in a broader sense, and maybe we’ll start holding perpetrators accountable instead of victims, especially when it comes to violence against women in our society.

Why did you feel it was important to do?

I probably answered most of this one in the question above. Ha. But I guess to cover the bases … It wasn’t some sense of righteous anger so much as an idea that seemed to fit in with my skill set (communications and design) and would appropriately address the absurdity of the CDC telling women not to drink.

Also, at some point I got this image in my head of a cartoon guy holding a cartoon knife, and it made me laugh, so I felt at that point like I had to at least give it a whirl.

Anything else you’d like to share about its creation and circulation?

Like I said, it just took a couple of hours in InDesign and Illustrator. Nothing too crazy. I suppose I should give credit to the CDC for not being extremely complex graphic designers … The format itself was pretty easy to re-create, then I just spent most the time figuring out what I actually wanted it to say.

Em and I went back and forth a little over what the parallel version for men really was. I guess men don’t get violent the way women get pregnant, but to me, it still seemed like the most accurate reflection of what the original CDC guidance was about at its heart: that women are bringing bad stuff on themselves by drinking.

After I made it, I shared it on Facebook and Twitter. A few friends started sharing it and retweeting it, as well. Then I sent it over to a friend of mine, Tim Donnelly, who runs the Brooklyn-centric community blog Brokelyn, and he posted it there with some commentary, which really caught some eyes.

We all made a few jokes about going “viral.” Get it? CDC? Viral? Sorry. Anyway, a fair number of people have seen it and talked about it, and mostly I’m just glad they seem to dig it. I hope it will help keep the momentum going on a conversation that has picked up steam in recent years, and hopefully will continue to grow in a positive direction.

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