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CDC Director Thomas Frieden Plays 'Not My Job'

Sep 22, 2012
Originally published on September 22, 2012 11:49 am

Anyone who watches movies knows that when a mysterious disease breaks out ... or when zombies show up ... or when a meteorite causes people to mutate into giant glowing worms, the place you go for answers is the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

We've invited CDC Director Thomas Frieden to play a game called "Try to stop these viruses!" Companies are constantly trying to make their campaigns "go viral," infecting brains all over the world. Frieden will answer three questions about viral marketing ideas gone awry.

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

PETER SAGAL, HOST:

And now, the game where people who do important things see what it's like to do something else. Everybody who watches TV or movies knows when the mysterious disease breaks out, when the zombies come, when the meteorite causes people to mutate into giant glowing worms, well the place you go for answers is the Centers for Disease Control, right here in Atlanta. Thomas Frieden is the director of the CDC and we are delighted and somewhat worried to have him with us now.

(LAUGHTER)

SAGAL: Dr. Frieden, welcome to the show. Great to have you.

(APPLAUSE)

SAGAL: We looked up your credentials. It says you're an MD, MPH, you're the director of the CDC and the administrator of the ATSDR and you're formerly of the WHO and the DOHMH and the implementer of the RNTCP in India. How do we know those all aren't just made up?

(LAUGHTER)

DOCTOR THOMAS FRIEDEN: Wikipedia, of course.

SAGAL: Wikipedia, we found that out, that's true. So you started in something called the EIS?

FRIEDEN: Yes.

SAGAL: The Epidemic Intelligence Service.

FRIEDEN: Yeah.

(APPLAUSE)

SAGAL: And these are the guys, like in the movies, like in "Contagion," they're the guys who show up, get off the C-130 cargo plane, with a stern look in their eye.

FRIEDEN: Yep.

SAGAL: Usually played by attractive young actresses. And they go out and find out what's going on.

FRIEDEN: It's very realistic.

SAGAL: Yeah.

(LAUGHTER)

SAGAL: You do look a lot like Gwenyth Paltrow, strangely. So I guess...

(LAUGHTER)

SAGAL: And so you're going out - I mean, you did this, you went out there into, like, potential disease outbreaks and found out what was going on?

FRIEDEN: Yes. In my time, my particular couple of years, it's a two-year training program.

SAGAL: Right.

FRIEDEN: Was on tuberculosis and drug-resistant tuberculosis.

SAGAL: Right.

FRIEDEN: That was spreading. And we stopped it.

SAGAL: You stopped it?

FRIEDEN: Yep.

SAGAL: And where was this?

FRIEDEN: This was in New York City.

SAGAL: Really? So you were roping in off of helicopters to stop tuberculosis?

(LAUGHTER)

SAGAL: That's pretty cool.

FRIEDEN: It was more like rounding in hospitals and going around from room to room, making sure that patients were on the right treatment.

SAGAL: That's not what I saw in the movies. There was definitely ropes and there was definitely helicopters.

(LAUGHTER)

ROY BLOUNT JR: What's your favorite disease?

MO ROCCA: Yeah, what is?

(LAUGHTER)

ROCCA: You must have one.

(APPLAUSE)

SAGAL: I mean, really, it's like, oh, Ebola, again, oh goody, or something.

(LAUGHTER)

FRIEDEN: Well, how about something like Malassezia Furfur?

SAGAL: Oh yeah.

FAITH SALIE: How about it?

(LAUGHTER)

ROCCA: Oh, she's great. I love her. It's a very popular, it's a celebrity baby name.

SAGAL: What is that? What is that?

FRIEDEN: It's a rash that doesn't cause any harm. It sounds great.

SALIE: Malassezia Furfur?

FRIEDEN: Yeah.

SALIE: I never want to forget that.

SAGAL: That sounds like the person who was trying to remember the name and just forgot and started making stuff up halfway through.

(LAUGHTER)

SAGAL: It's like, you know, malassezia furfurfur. Hoping that no one would notice.

ROCCA: Why don't all those people just move to the east side of the Nile?

(LAUGHTER)

(APPLAUSE)

SAGAL: All right, seems like a simple solution.

ROCCA: I mean, just like there must bridges, just move to the other side, if the west side is giving you that much problem.

SAGAL: OK.

SALIE: Is the CDC in part responsible for, you know, the standing Purell dispensers that are everywhere now, especially on cruise ships?

FRIEDEN: Well, they've gotten real popular, and cruise ships is something that we work on closely with the cruise ship industry to try to make sure they're as safe as possible.

SALIE: Do you get to go on cruises all the time?

FRIEDEN: Not personally.

(LAUGHTER)

ROCCA: I have a question. You've opened that whole Pandora's Box. We have to talk about hand sanitizing lotion. The issue that I have is that at my office...

(LAUGHTER)

ROCCA: ...when I do my thing, I then wash my hands. There is a hand sanitizing lotion dispenser right outside of the bathroom. Here's the problem. When I leave the bathroom after washing my hands, I want to go there for extra cleansing, but people that are standing around there look at me, and then I think they're going to think I didn't wash my hands in the bathroom.

(LAUGHTER)

ROCCA: So I'm too embarrassed to use it. So should I just get over it? What should I do?

(LAUGHTER)

FRIEDEN: I think you need to talk about that with somebody else.

SAGAL: A different kind of doctor.

SALIE: A different doctor.

(LAUGHTER)

(APPLAUSE)

SAGAL: I have to ask you about this. We covered this on our show when it happened. But the CDC, your organization recently issued an actual statement saying that America was not actually suffering an outbreak of zombies.

FRIEDEN: We were happy to be able to clear that up.

(LAUGHTER)

SAGAL: Is this something you monitor, the zombie situation?

FRIEDEN: Peter, if anyone comes up with a way of diagnosing someone as being a zombie, I can guarantee you it will be the CDC.

SAGAL: Really?

(LAUGHTER)

(APPLAUSE)

SAGAL: I've noticed that the CDC, you know, the statements tend to be very calming, very official. So I imagine it won't be like "oh my god, there are zombies." But it'd be like "The CDC has become aware of shambling cannibalistic dead people."

(LAUGHTER)

SAGAL: "We advise Americans to maintain a safe distance. And if necessary, shoot them in the head with a shotgun."

(LAUGHTER)

(APPLAUSE)

SAGAL: I have to ask you. You are the head of the CDC. Did the memo about the zombies come to you for your signature?

FRIEDEN: No.

SAGAL: It didn't?

FRIEDEN: No.

(LAUGHTER)

SAGAL: So you picked up the newspaper and said, oh, my organization has just issued a statement denying that there are zombies. Oh good. Glad they don't need me monitoring their everyday activities.

(LAUGHTER)

FRIEDEN: It was actually a great way to get people to think about, you know if you're prepared for a zombie, you're really prepared for a hurricane, a tornado, an infectious disease, just about anything.

(LAUGHTER)

SAGAL: And just like, if you're prepared for zombies, you're prepared for hurricanes. The hurricane is bearing down on Florida, and they're all standing in their front yards with a shotgun. I don't think so.

(LAUGHTER)

(APPLAUSE)

SAGAL: Dr. Frieden, you've devoted all this effort to helping people live better, more healthy. Do you yourself have any unhealthy habits like, you know, pork rinds?

(LAUGHTER)

FRIEDEN: I have a sweet tooth. So I love pies, down here in Atlanta. I love...

SAGAL: Pies.

(APPLAUSE)

FRIEDEN: ...cheesecake in New York. I love whatever is sweet.

JR: I happen to have a fried peach pie from the market.

(APPLAUSE)

SALIE: Nice.

SAGAL: I should say to the people at home, Roy Blount actually just tossed a deep fried peach pie to the director of the CDC. I have always wanted to say something like this to someone like you. You know, those will kill you.

(LAUGHTER)

SAGAL: Well, Dr. Frieden, we are delighted to have you here. We thank you for the good work you've done for public health. But, right now, our purpose is to play a game that this time we're calling?

CARL KASELL: Try to stop these viruses.

(LAUGHTER)

SAGAL: So, some viruses like Ebola are bad. Viral marketing, though, worse. Companies are constantly trying to make their campaigns go viral, infecting brains all over the world. We're going to ask you about three such viral marketing campaigns. Get two right, you'll win a prize for one of our listeners. Carl, who is Dr. Friedan playing for?

KASELL: He is playing for Luke Copeland of Warner Robbins, Georgia.

SAGAL: All right, you ready to play?

(APPLAUSE)

SAGAL: Here's your first question. Adidas, the sporting goods company, came up with what they thought was a great viral marketing idea in Japan. It was a phone app that when you activated it did what? A: permanently alter all your photos in your phone so that everyone in them is wearing Adidas clothing?

(LAUGHTER)

SAGAL: B: changes your ringtone to a voice yelling "I'm fat and slow because I don't exercise enough"?

(LAUGHTER)

SAGAL: Or C: find your house and destroy it?

(LAUGHTER)

FRIEDEN: I am baffled, but I'll have to go with, knowing that there's some odd marketing campaigns in Japan, B.

SAGAL: Change your ringtone to a voice that yells in Japan, "I'm fat and slow because I do not exercise. I'm fat and slow because I do not exercise." Is that your choice?

FRIEDEN: B, I'm going to stick with B.

SAGAL: You're going to stick with B. Admire his firmness of opinion, however, you're wrong. It was actually C. Let me explain how this is supposed to work. It was supposed to advertise this new marketing tie-in with Star Wars.

And you know how in Star Wars - you all know how in Star Wars the planet Alderaan is destroyed by the Death Star? Well, if you activate the app, the app would use public records to find your address and then show you your house being destroyed by a death beam, to be replaced by the Adidas logo.

(LAUGHTER)

SAGAL: And this would somehow make you want to buy Adidas products.

FRIEDEN: It didn't work?

SAGAL: It did not work; people were very upset.

ROCCA: The Surgeon General would have gone with C.

(LAUGHTER)

SAGAL: That's all right.

(APPLAUSE)

SAGAL: You have two more chances. You still might survive this. The makers of the videogame Splinter Cell Conviction, that's one of those shoot 'em up games, tried to generate excitement for their game in New Zealand by doing what? A: faking an invasion by angry mowereys (ph). B: sending a guy dressed as a terrorist to pretend to take over a bar? Or C: sending death threats to every male in New Zealand aged 18 to 34?

(LAUGHTER)

SAGAL: The time for action is now, doctor.

(LAUGHTER)

FRIEDEN: All right, then I'll go for B.

SAGAL: You'll go for B. Yes, it was B, very well done.

(SOUNDBITE OF BELL)

(APPLAUSE)

SAGAL: The idea, they set it up for this guy dressed as a terrorist would jump into this bar and wave his gun around and then some hero actor would jump in with another fake gun and do away with him. And that would be like, oh, this is really exiting. I should like to play this on my video console at home.

What happened instead was that everybody in the bar freaked out, started screaming in terror, called the police and everything went to hell.

(LAUGHTER)

SAGAL: But it was a good idea to start with.

(LAUGHTER)

SAGAL: All right, you're one for two, with one to go. Here's your last question. Toyota wanted to get in on viral marketing, so they tried to promote their new car, the Matrix, with sort of this virally spread service, which would allow you to do what?

A: have one of your friends stalked by crazy strangers? B: arrange to have a Matrix, filled with cute girls, pull up next to you at a light and wave? Or C: instantly create a fake criminal record for yourself, so you can seem edgy, even though you were driving a Toyota?

(LAUGHTER)

FRIEDEN: B.

SAGAL: You're going to go for B. I'm afraid it was actually A. The idea was you could submit your friend's name to this service and then they would be stalked virtually online by one of five, quote, "virtual lunatics," people calling you and sending you emails. How this was supposed to sell cars was unclear.

(LAUGHTER)

SAGAL: Especially after one victim sued the company for emotional distress. Carl, how did Dr. Frieden do on our quiz?

KASELL: Well, Peter, the doctor needed two correct answers to win for Luke Copeland, but he had just one correct answer.

SAGAL: Well, sure, but you've probably saved him from dying a premature death from some horrible disease, so let's call it even, shall we not?

(APPLAUSE)

SAGAL: Thomas Frieden is the Director of Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, Georgia. Dr. Frieden, thank you so much for being with us.

FRIEDEN: Thank you.

SAGAL: A pleasure to have you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.