What does... "prevalence" actually mean?

Benno Maggi explains in his column "What does... actually mean?" terms from the field of marketing and communication. This time he deals with "prevalence".

Advertisers like to use words from other industries. In addition to the financial industry, aviation and healthcare are popular sources for this.

Prevalence originates from the latter. It refers to the proportion of a population to which a certain condition applies - be it Covid, influenza or AIDS sufferers. This rate is calculated by relating it to the total number of people considered; represented as a fraction, percentage or number of cases.

In market research and marketing, the term has been used mostly only by statistics nerds in reference to high prevalence of a target group, clicked ads, or sold products. Currently, however, because of the omicron wave - or wall, depending on which statistics you believe - it is appearing more and more frequently in advertising agencies, the media, and communications.

Who else is going to get out of it?

Hand on heart: prevalence was previously incomprehensible to many. And perhaps it still is today. But at a time when everything in marketing has to go viral, no one wants to give themselves away. That's why statements about prevalence in boardrooms or on calls are always met with serious faces or approving nods, without having much idea about it.

Here's an attempt at an explanation: Prevalence means the answer to the question "How many of the group 'Bärli' have blond hair?" - In kindergarten, everyone then wildly shouts any number or name in confusion. Later, in school, the shouting becomes even more confusing, because it is supplemented with statements like "2 out of 11" or "every third", "half", "20%" or cheekily "ich nöd". This jumble of statements is familiar to all dutiful citizens who today try to inform themselves about things like symptoms, isolation or PCR testing.

Agencies with experience in prevention campaigns - and there are quite a few in the country - learned about the term much earlier than anyone else in tender texts or briefing sessions. Therefore, it should be expected that this is also communicated in an understandable way! The Federal Office of Public Health alone spends almost 20 million Swiss francs a year on such campaigns. Covid excluded, there would be another 36 million francs. The good news for confused taxpayers: Even if this figure seems high, the prevalence in relation to the total expenditure to contain the pandemic is low.


Benno Maggi is co-founder and CEO of Partner & Partner. He has been eavesdropping on the industry for over 30 years, discovering words and terms for us that can either be used for small talk, pomposity, excitement, playing Scrabble or just because.

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