Brandcameo: Minnesota Dept. of Health Sick About ‘Contagion’ as CDC Profits


There are a lot of product “placements” in Contagion, logos and names that appear in passing, backgrounds and without a great degree of consequence. A crack about Taco Bell here, a Mazda, Audi, or Chevy logo there. But there are really only two or three “brands” that find themselves the focus of the film, and one of them has genuine reason to be sick about the slanderous way Contagion portrays it.

“The Minnesota Department of Health was not officially involved with the film in any way,” John Stieger, the department’s communications director, told brandchannel. If you’ve seen the new #1 movie at the US box office, that shouldn’t come as a surprise.[more]

Contagion, much of which takes place in Minneapolis, passes off the Minnesota Department of Health as a gaggle of unknowledgeable bureaucrats, as concerned with pinching pennies as with heading off the spread of the most deadly disease of the modern era. When heroic Kate Winslet, a Centers for Disease Control field agent, appears in Minneapolis-St. Paul to investigate the infection, she is met with a combination of hostility and ineptitude from the state’s heath department, some of who appear to be borrowed from the film Fargo.

At one sad point, Winslet’s CDC character takes to a white board to explain to the bickering Minnesota Dept. of Health staff some of the most basic principles of infectious diseases, as if they were middle school students in health class.

Stieger told us, “We have not been in contact with the filmmakers about any concerns we may have about the movie.” He pointed to a Minneapolis Star Tribune piece that interviewed two of the state’s top epidemiologists about the film, which, in part addresses the department’s treatment in the movie, which features an all-star cast that also features Matt Damon, Gwyneth Paltrow, Lawrence Fishburne, Marion Cotillard, Jude Law, and Bryan Cranston.

“Clearly, that would not have been the response from the Minnesota Department of Health,” said Osterholm, who worked there for 24 years,” the paper quoted Dr. Lynfield in its article, adding: “In fact, the state and CDC have worked closely on numerous disease investigations as well as preparations for future outbreaks, and Minnesota has a stellar national reputation in the field. But in the film, written by Golden Valley native Scott Z. Burns, the Minnesotans act as if they’ve barely even heard of an infectious disease.”

Indeed, the Minnesota’s department’s former epidemiologist, Dr. Michael Osterholm, the author of the bestseller Living Terrors: What America Needs to Know to Survive the Coming Bioterrorist Catastrophe, is now director of the University of Minnesota’s Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy, one of the nation’s most consulted authorities on the subject.

In 2003, when the world was feeling threatened by SARS, The Washington Post turned to Osterholm for comment. Also seeking the Minnesotan’s expertise on SARS, the infection that spread from Hong Kong and which was clearly the inspiration for the MEV-1 disease in Contagion? A United States of America Senate oversight committee.

“We’ve posted a message on the department’s Facebook page encouraging people to share their own reviews with us. It will be interesting to see what comments we receive,” said Stieger about how the Minnesota organization will respond to its treatment by the film.

One organization that gets far more positive, if not glowing, treatment in the film is the Centers for Disease Control.

CDC’s communications dept. has jumped on the opportunity the high-profile hit film provides for a little PR to boost both the CDC’s image and its mission of public education. CDC experts have been made available to media such as Wired Magazine for Q&As to speak about the film and “how seriously it takes its epidemiology.” The director of the CDC scored a byline at The Atlantic to write about how “Deadly Viruses Could Spread Fast.”

On its own website, the CDC is leveraging Contagion fever to publish an official response, a piece titled “Contagion Movie: Fact and Fiction in Film,” and “How CDC Saves Lives Controlling Real Global Disease Outbreaks.”

One even has to wonder if some of the responses to the integrated marketing campaign aren’t themselves part of some viral element meant to mirror the skeptical blogger charcater in Contagion.

Yet, fueling such conspiracy theories are actions like that of Life Technologies Inc., which bought ads on YouTube against searches for “Contagion” and “CDC” to promote a video all about what the CDC does.



Life Technologies is a private coporation that works closely with the CDC to research and develop treatments to diseases the CDC is tasked with managing. Beyond the video ad buy, Life Tech’s PR department has been actively attaching the group to the CDC in articles focusing on Contagion‘s premise. Life Technologies’ instruments enabled the CDC to nail down 2009’s H1N1 “swine flu” outbreak. A year later, its earnings were up 23 percent. It would appear the company would indeed have a vested interest in assuring the CDC, and its budget, stay in the good graces of the public.

The CDC’s cooperation with filmmakers paid off for employees, who were treated to a special early screening of the film, which in turn paid off for the filmmakers, as those employees provided “authoritative” praise for the movie.

One more reason the CDC is interested in promoting a film which aims to create national fear about unpreparedness? The organization’s budget has been cut by over $350 million, or about a third, in the last six years.

From a branding perspective, this is a much more successful effort by the CDC since its last go-around. Many may remember the May 2011 PR stunt the CDC pulled when it published an “official” guide for zombie apocalypse preparedness. It was a great little burst of attention for the CDC, until the popularity of the jaunt crashed the CDC’s servers, exposing how terribly the organizations was prepared to handle a real apocalypse, zombie or otherwise.

Meanwhile, asked if the Minnesota Dept. of Health would similarly leverage the opportunity to make a statement publicly criticizing the film’s portrayal of it, Stieger said, “I highly doubt it.” He added, “While it did not accurately portray the great expertise and professionalism at the Minnesota Department of Health, it is important to remember that the movie was created as entertainment; it is not a documentary.”

Typical, humble Minnesotan.

Warner Bros., meanwhile, engaged in a little ‘viral’ marketing of its own.

Warner Bros. Pictures Canada teamed up with microbiologists and immunologists from around the world to create a one-of-a-kind bacteria message board in an abandoned store-front window in Toronto. On August 28th, two large Petri dishes were inoculated with live bacteria including penicillin, mold and pigmented bacteria and almost overnight have revealed the true Contagion — an artistic interpretation of the spread of a virus as depicted in the film.

The public was invited to witness first-hand the remarkable growing power of natural bacteria on Wednesday August 31st, with the first 50 people who arrived getting passes to see Contagion in theatres and other themed prizes.

For all of the brands seen in Contagion, visit the Brandcameo product placement database.