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Australian ad showing Covid patient gasping for air ‘could increase vaccine hesitancy’ | Health


A new Australian government Covid awareness advertisement featuring a young woman gasping for air in a hospital bed has been criticised for leaning into scare tactics and for urging vaccination among a group who are still not eligible for the recommended vaccine.

The federal government released two ads at the weekend, one featuring the young woman, which also carries a message for people to stay at home and get tested, and the other showing a parade of arms bearing Band-Aids after vaccination with the tagline: “Arm yourself against Covid-19.”

The federal health minister, Greg Hunt, said the “arm yourself” ad had always been planned for “exactly this moment” while the hospital ad had been made and held in reserve in case of a significant outbreak.

How Australia's vaccination ads compare with the rest of the world – videoHow Australia’s vaccination ads compare with the rest of the world – video

Hunt said the message was anyone can save a life by getting vaccinated, just as anyone can inadvertently risk a life.

“That is the message as well with the more difficult, more challenging ad but a deliberately constructed ad which was prepared in anticipation of if there were a major outbreak and approved by the chief medical officer as being the appropriate time to release,” he told reporters on Monday.

The ad “leans very, very strongly into scare tactics and fear”, said Dr Jessica Kaufman, a research fellow at Murdoch Children’s Research Institute.

That could increase vaccine hesitancy and, because it uses an actor, be viewed as manipulative and increase distrust in government, Kaufman said.

“We’ve seen with vaccination in particular that fear campaigns or scary messages about diseases can actually cause people to become more fearful of vaccine side-effects,” she said.

Kaufman also criticised the decision to target the ad at younger people who are not yet eligible to receive the recommended vaccine.

“They’re really targeting young people because I think they think that the young people are breaking the rules in Sydney,” she said. “But it’s muddied by saying: stay at home, and by the way, book your vaccination that you’re not eligible for because we don’t have enough of it.”

Kaufman is part of a team that has been researching vaccine acceptance, including a project for the Victorian government. It found that what worked was stories from real people, combined with messages targeted at specific communities. That report was provided to the federal government.

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“As far as I’m aware, none of the people that I work with or the people that I know in other states who do this kind of research have had a real meaningful impact on a federal level with their communications,” she said.

Kaufman said the campaign was “really disappointing”.

“We’ve been saying it for months and months and months that we know what people need, it’s not rocket science – a lot of this stuff is what’s being done overseas, and we can see how it’s working overseas … I don’t really understand what the resistance to evidence is. It’s mysterious to me.”

Scott Morrison defended the graphic ad on Monday.

“It was only a few weeks ago that our very critics were saying that the advertising needed to be stronger, far stronger,” the prime minister said.

Prof Julie Leask, a social scientist at the University of Sydney, said criticism of the use of fear in the hospital ad was misplaced because that was “primarily stay-at-home messaging”.

The tagline is: “Stay home. Get Tested. Book your vaccine.”

“Arm yourself” is Australia’s official vaccine campaign. Leask said it was “simple, dry and safe”.

She is an expert on responding to vaccine hesitancy and strengthening vaccination campaigns. She also was not consulted by the federal government.

“It’s a low-political-risk, safe campaign for now, given the supply constraints,” Leask said.

“The time for those more stronger, more emotional emotionally engaging messages is when we have enough supply, because if you emotionally motivate people to vaccinate too strongly now and they can’t access vaccination, they’ll get angry, and they’ll disengage and you might actually then undermine their motivation to get vaccinated in future.”

Leask said the “arm yourself” campaign was “fairly neutral, very bland” but did appeal to a sense of social responsibility.

Both Leask and Kaufman praised the federal government for the diversity of bodies represented in the ad but criticised the decision not to show anything from the shoulders up.

“They are headless bodies so we’re not identifying personally with the people being vaccinated,” Leask said.

Kaufman said: “I like that it doesn’t have needles. I don’t like that it’s entirely faceless. Literally, there are no faces – so how are you supposed to connect with people?”

They both questioned the use of a military metaphor, particularly given the intention to translate the campaign into 36 languages to reach culturally and linguistically diverse communities.

“I’d wonder how the message ‘arm yourself’ would resonate with someone who comes from a military dictatorship,” Leask said. “I’d be very interested to know what kind of research with a whole lot of different communities underpinned that.

“It’s a $41m campaign, so I think the Australian public have a right to know that.”


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