Agent of Change



STANDING at a conference podium in San Diego, Jeff Jordan ’05 briefly transports his packed audience to the angst-ridden halls of high school, where cliques lurk in every corner. The public health workers follow as headshots on a screen divide the teens into five neat categories: mainstream, popular, hip-hop, country and alternative. Whether one enters a cafeteria in Missouri or Alaska, the charismatic president of the behavior change agency Rescue contends, not only are peer crowds the same, so are the behavioral risk factors for each group. In fact, Jordan is so certain of this, his company is banking on it to curb deleterious habits that can scar some adolescent populations for life.

Through his voice, one can feel his urgency, his drive. Many attendees have traveled thousands of miles and over oceans to this San Diego summit, Agents of Change, to learn more about the guerilla methods Rescue is deploying to reach at-risk teens and youth. Most mornings of the conference (which includes other researchers’ approaches) open with stretches overlooking the marina, and continue with workshops and lectures. All the while, Jordan’s youth army busily patrols the Sheraton San Diego Hotel & Marina in T-shirts emblazoned with “Change Agent*” on the back, like FBI garb.

With his hands gesturing wildly like a second megaphone, the 34-year-old alumnus emphasizes that contrary to most outreach efforts, it’s not the mainstream teens that public health needs to worry about. It’s the overlooked peer crowds, such as alternative and hip-hop, who smoke and do drugs the most. What’s more, their specific proclivities may indicate much more than who will light up. Drawing on research into Virginia teens, Jordan says that peer crowds using his modeling can even reveal who eats less breakfast (alternative); swigs down more soda (country); or binge drinks the most alcohol (hip-hop). If this holds true, the ramifications for health can be immense. “We found more patterns of peer crowd behaviors than we even expected,” he says. “Everything was pretty much influenced by peer crowds.”

Jordan, in a button-down shirt, fitted blue pants and his hair stylishly cropped on either side, behaved almost like a motivational speaker trying to inspire a staid public health system to radically transform its approach. Peppering his pitch with bold phrases like “create these new norms,” and “that is a power you have,” he wants those listening to steal from Big Tobacco’s playbook of targeting specific populations. Then he wants to blow the smoke back into its cancerous face.

Along with the soda, junk food and alcohol industry, their targeting has been based on a deep understanding of identity, drawing from the field of psychographics (who these people are), such as their values, beliefs, interests or aspirations. In contrast, he asserts, the public health system has concentrated on the relatively flat data of demographics (who you were born as), such as gender, race or socioeconomics. For Jordan, that’s a missed opportunity to save lives, and a waste of dollars.

Wherever teens and youth hang out, Jordan will bring a campaign there. That means sponsoring outdoor events with anti-tobacco themes at bogs and trucks shows for the country set, or promoting his agency’s work at rock concerts for the alternative crowd. Public health officials across the United States are taking note, with Rescue’s growing client list including the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), and state health departments from California to New Mexico to Connecticut. In 2017, Rescue entered into a five-year, $625 million contract with the FDA, alongside another agency, to continue anti-tobacco efforts. “It’s very unusual for public health,” says Kathy Crosby, director of the FDA’s office of health communications and education, of deploying Rescue’s methods. “Advertising and marketers who know how to talk to their audience do it well. Jeff and Rescue are bringing that to the public health arena.”

From a one-boy operation Jordan founded at 17, Rescue has catapulted to 160 full-time employees with six offices across the country. But it all started in his Las Vegas family home, and flourished during his undergraduate years at Johnson & Wales University.

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Jeff Jordan '05

Photo by Evan Hurd

JORDAN didn’t start out wanting to combat society’s ills. He didn’t have a personal crusade, or a disease that wiped out members of his family that he sought to eradicate. At sixteen, a chance invite to an anti-smoking group changed his future. As he rose to youth leader, he had an epiphany at a rave one night while gazing at his peers dancing to the techno. At the time, raves had been on the news a lot, portraying the dance parties as drug havens. He saw it differently: “For whatever reason, these kids don’t fit in at home or in other places. [They] have found a place to call their own … Is there a way to reduce drug use at these events and use the event itself to promote a drug-free lifestyle?”

Hanging out under the moonlight with glow sticks in a blue Dr. Seuss wig was just one of Jordan’s many identities. Before that, he’d wear baggy clothes to fit into the hip-hop crowd and Abercrombie & Fitch distressed jeans to hang with the popular kids, all to camouflage his own true self as a semi-closeted teen. While trying, it also came with tremendous insight. “The average teen can ebb and flow with what’s going on,” he said. “[As a gay teen], your identify is much more managed and you are much more careful about what you are projecting. In a way, being a closeted teenager helps you be a good marketer because you are forced to make conscious choices about what image you are going to project.”

In a way, being a closeted teenager helps you be a good marketer because you are forced to make conscious choices about what image you are going to project.”

Jordan’s own psychographics were partly shaped by his family’s immigration from Peru when he was three years old, as well as watching his father Cesar struggle to meet high monthly payments for the construction truck he owned and operated. The budding entrepreneur opened his first business — a lemonade stand — in elementary school. When he ran out of cups, he didn’t shutter the tap. Instead, he simply charged 25 cents for gulps straight out of the jar. By junior high, he asked if his parents could match the $500 he would raise for a new computer. “We didn’t believe it [would happen],” says his mother, Annarella Jordan. But sure enough, he started washing cars, babysitting, doing anything until he reached his goal. “After that, we started believing him,” she adds.

AS THE younger Jordan’s work in anti-tobacco grew, he met the prevention coordinator for the local health department at a youth coalition. Maria Azzarelli saw potential in his unorthodox approach, and his unusual command over his peers. However, not all of her older colleagues shared the same view. “Initially it was quite shocking to them,” says Azzarelli, now manager of the Southern Nevada Health District’s Office of Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion. “They wondered, ‘Why are you hiring this kid?’ Now they see the value. The strategies that we were using were very edgy for the time and weren’t necessarily proven. They weren’t evidence-based. They hadn’t been evaluated. Sometimes you have to go for it.”

That’s not to say that there weren’t growing pains. To reach the hip-hop set, he organized an anti-tobacco symposium called the “Kick Ash Bash” with what’s now known as the Southern Nevada Health District. He threw his first one in high school. Everything had gone as planned until the third event. That night, 1,000 teens had lined up outside the door for the more party-like part of the occasion, and the DJ had begun to spin. Then a police cavalry of horses and paddy wagons raided the venue, turning on the lights and releasing a smoke bomb. “They had no idea that what they planned to raid was actually funded by the health department,” he said. “They just saw it as another thing we need to shut down because these are bad kids that are just out for trouble.” With his passion a little heated, he was arrested and taken to the station, though the charges were later dropped.

That aside, Southern Nevada Health District had a much larger reduction than the country as a whole, with 30-day smoking rates dropping by 70 percent, from 24.7 percent to 7.3 percent, compared to the nation’s 45 percent. Jordan’s work in anti-tobacco and the Future Business Leaders of America eventually helped to win him a scholarship to Johnson & Wales University in Providence, where he moved Rescue HQ to his dorm room, sandwiching his desk, scanner and printer between his and his roommate’s twin beds, underneath the gaze of a dreadlocked Bob Marley poster. Every other weekend, as his classmates were partying and studying, the Marketing major commuted back and forth to Las Vegas, quickly applying the lessons he learned from his weekday entrepreneur classes.

They wondered, ‘Why are you hiring this kid?’ Now they see the value. The strategies that we were using were very edgy for the time and weren’t necessarily proven.”

“I was learning in real time the skills I needed,” he says, recalling how he would learn a new lesson in introductory accounting, only to return home after class to correct his company’s books. Equally important was a class in advertising. He learned about print ads, and realized he could make this part of his pitch to health departments interested in partnering with him. After graduating in three years, he studied at University of California, San Diego, where he received a master’s in psychology.

LISTENING to Jordan speak is like watching old-fashioned network television. Every so often, his scheduled programming on the projector pauses for a commercial break. The ads range from Burger King’s shilling of whoppers to hypermacho males; to NutriSystem’s luring of new male clients; to Starbucks’ pitch as a welcoming environment for the LGBT community. Then Jordan deconstructs the value of messaging to specific audiences. Case in point: The last spot featured two of RuPaul’s Drag Race queens playfully sparing, in heavy makeup. Jordan wanted the audience to know that delivering a message doesn’t have to be an expensive endeavor for cash-strapped health systems. In fact, he hired some of RuPaul’s queens for his own campaigns, and the fee for each queen — or influencer — ranged from an estimated $2,500 to $5,000.

Jordan believes that by drawing influencers from the targeted community, they have more credibility, relatability and, most importantly, effectiveness. When Rescue partnered with the FDA, the federal agency launched its first campaign targeting “multicultural youth” who classified as hip-hop. It was called “Fresh Empire.” Highly stylized shorts included a young man walking out of a house, set to music, while his father works on a car. “My Pops was always trying to make life better for us,” he narrates in “Forward,” before getting into a car and writing in a notebook. “When I started spinning with a few friends, I saw it as my chance to keep moving forward. Knowing there are only a few MCs like me won’t stop me. I’ve come too far. Now it’s my turn. That’s why I stay tobacco-free. Because you’re not moving forward when every pack is pulling you back.” By the end, he walks onto the stage and is handed the mic, to the raucous cheers of the crowd. The overall campaign aims to highlight the positive side of forgoing tobacco, and how tobacco can rob them of their hip-hop goals — to be successful, good-looking and in control. The spots have been widely circulated since launching in 2015, with Fresh Empire logging 8 million unique visitors to their website and 10.6 million interactions on social media, according to the federal agency. Rescue’s other campaign with the FDA, “This Free Life,” targets LGBT young adults who are twice as likely to smoke as their peers, and boasted 1.8 million visitors to their site since 2016, and 4.3 million interactions on social media.

For Jordan’s work on 20-somethings and identity, which is classed into seven categories — including the counter-culture bearded hipster, the actionseeking partier and the more non-conforming LGBT — he has found that the hipster is among the greatest risk for tobacco use. To reach this anticorporate set, Rescue hosted parties at bars and clubs in San Diego and San Francisco. Helping to oversee the research was Pamela Ling, one of the early reality stars of MTV’s “Real World” and now a physician at the University of California San Francisco. The research, published in the journal Tobacco Control, found the association between tobacco and peer crowds more significant than race or ethnicity, with the hip-hop and hipsters leading the pack for cigarette use. An earlier study of their work, published in the American Journal of Public Health, found smoking among hipsters attending their campaign events in San Diego decreased from 57 to 48 percent. However, the data was self-reported, and did not have a comparison group.

When we help, it’s a feeling of ‘Oh good, we helped that one,’ ” he says. “Now let’s hurry up and get to the next.”
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As with any emergent field, as the FDA’s Crosby says, the proof will be in the long-term results. At the end of Jordan’s long seminar that Sunday in San Diego, he directs the audience to break into groups to collaborate on tackling a health issue with their new tools. As the attendees confer, he works the room like any good inspirational speaker would, lending a more intimate feel to the gathering. Eventually he makes his way to a roundtable in the back, stopping at Michelle Oatman’s table, where she and a handful of others are brainstorming on how to reduce the incidence of diabetes. She had traveled there from Maniilaq Health Center in Kotzebue, Alaska, about 30 miles above the Arctic Circle, on a wellness grant to try to get people to change their behavior. “He was easy to listen to and buy into what he was saying; I felt like I could take this home and do this,” says Oatman. “I had been a ‘negative Nelly’ saying it’s never going to go, we can’t do this, because we keep doing the same thing all the time. But I see going about it in a different way now and I think it’s going to be beneficial.”

When Jordan is later asked what it feels like to have potentially saved lives, he sidesteps the question. He doesn’t want to think too much about one life. There are too many teens on the fringes of society who need attention. “When we help, it’s a feeling of ‘Oh good, we helped that one,’ ” he says. “Now let’s hurry up and get to the next.”

This story originally appeared in JWU Magazine Winter 2019

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