You’ve probably played the game Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon in which players attempt to connect any film actor in history to Kevin Bacon as quickly as possible and in as few links as possible.

Now there is a new study on obesity that may lead to a new game I call “Six Degrees of Bacon Fat!”

In this game, a contestant is shown a photo of a fat former Hollywood starlet taken from the pages of National Enquirer and must connect himself or herself to that starlet through other obese people in as few links as possible. Like… I know X, who is obese, and he works in a PR firm hat has this starlet’s agent as a client. That agent is obese too! I win!

According to the Wall Street Journal’s Health Blog:

“Among more than 12,000 people in a decades-long study of heart disease, a person’s chances of becoming obese increased by 57% if he or she had a friend who also became obese, and by 37% if a spouse became obese. In a twist reminiscent of the pop-culture game six degrees of Kevin Bacon, researchers found that if your friend’s friend became obese, it increased your chances of becoming obese by 45%. If your friend’s friend’s friend became obese, it increased your chances by 20%.”

According to that Blog’s author, “It may be time to start thinking of obesity as an infectious disease.”

“Obesity appears to spread from one person to another like a virus or a fad,” says a Washington Post article, “researchers reported yesterday in a first-of-its-kind study that helps explain — and could help fight — one of the nation’s biggest public health problems.”

Oh, Ho!

That, my friends, must be music to the ears of drug companies working on obesity medications! If obesity is an infectious disease, and spreads from person to person like a virus, then there really is an “obesity epidemic” in this country! Ka-ching!

Social Network Analysis
The method used in the study is social network analysis, which is a special interest of Nicholas Christakis, M.D., the principal author of the study:

Currently, [Christakis] is principally concerned with health and social networks, and specifically with how ill health, disability, health behavior, health care, and death in one person can influence the same phenomena in a person’s social network. Some current work focuses on the health benefits of marriage and on how ill health in one spouse can have cascading effects on the other spouse. It seems likely that improving the health of one partner in a marriage can have meaningful effects on the health of the other, [my emphasis] and that both parties would value this — in a way that influences health policy. Other work examines a very large social network (of 12,000 people, including family, friends, and neighbors) followed for over 30 years to look broadly at the role of networks in health and health care. This work involves the application of network science and mathematical models to understand the dynamics of health in longitudinally evolving networks. To the extent that health behaviors such as smoking, drinking, or unhealthy eating spread within networks in intelligible ways, there are substantial implications for our understanding of health behavior and health policy.

This field of study may have some application in pharmaceutical marketing and advertising beyond helping obesity drug marketers hawk products that, in themselves (without lifestyle changes), offer very little relief. Here are two ideas for marketing applications that come to my mind:

  1. Framing the right kind of educational message in DTC advertising, and
  2. Exploiting online social networking tools

How much better would Viagra DTC ads be if they somehow connected the wife’s sexual health with the husband’s? I’m not sure how to do this on network TV, but this is the kind of thing Pfizer should be studying how to do rather than how to connect Viagra with recreational sex and a good time as in its “Viva Viagra” campaign (see “Viva Viagra Ad is No Cure for Morte Sales“).

As for #2, I don’t think anyone has connected the dots that exist between Christakis’s work and the dynamics of online patient support communities. Pharmaceutical companies are very interested in partnering with these communities, influencing the discussion, or advertising within them. They are not quite sure which approach to use and are very afraid of open discussions about their products.

No one is considering, however, if the same dynamics Christakis sees in the real world operate in the virtual world and if they do, how to exploit that.

I’m just thinking out loud here and hoping to get a discussion going. It’s summer, it’s slow, what more can I say?