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“Flatfoot and unimaginative”: Experts rate Australia’s Covid vaccination advertising | Jane Caro, Tom van Laer and Dee Madigan

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“Government communication was boring”

The defining characteristic of most government communications about Covid-19, including the latest quasi-militarist “self-arming” campaign, has been how boring it is. The work was prosaic, flat, unimaginative and could hardly motivate anyone. It’s almost like the message was designed not to attract any attention.

Other countries have done a lot better – and not just in getting more vaccines up their arms. I love the ease of this TVC from the UK. It’s a textbook example of how to encourage people to get the vaccine instead of lecturing or blaming them.

And it’s a great use by celebrities too, instead of leaving them stiff and uncomfortable and addressing us like poor Nick Coatsworth used to be.

Private companies have also interfered. This from Heineken is a masterpiece of encouragement. Being an old cheat myself, I really like the way the older people are portrayed as cool in this ad.

How Australia's Vaccine Ads Compared to the Rest of the World - VideoHow Australia’s Vaccine Ads Compared to the Rest of the World – Video

And it’s not that we don’t have the skills or the talent to do a great job here. Even if our greedy leaders don’t want to spend the money the Brits and Heineken have, here’s what an old copywriter of mine, Mick Hunter, threw together in a matter of minutes.

Not only is it funnier than the “arm yourself” execution, it’s a much more effective call to arms for collective action.

The two overseas commercials are textbook examples of motivational behavior through hope. Mick’s execution is about the hope that lies in banding together to fight something. If your goal is to change behavior – like convincing people to get a vaccine – then hope can work, but so can fear.

That’s because they’re the two forward-thinking emotions. When you look to the future with tension you feel hope; when you look at it with fear you feel fear. Sometimes we call them the carrot and the whip. When it comes to behavior change, neither is better or worse than the other; either can work.

A mock vaccination report from Mick Hunter.A mock vaccination report from Mick Hunter.

The execution, in which the young woman struggles to breathe, uses fear as a motivator, in contrast to the boring “arm yourself” campaign. It may not be a particularly good read, there may even be some ethical issues as medical professionals are quick to refer to it as inaccurate.

But in terms of behavior change, it has at least some chance of working, provided, of course, there are enough vaccines.

“Fear can lead to denial of the seriousness of the threat”

I would rate the national Arm Yourself vaccination campaign five out of ten for effectiveness. From 20 years of social science research, we know that both trust and motivation are necessary in order to adopt behavior. We also know that metaphors like “arm yourself” increase confidence in available vaccines, but do not motivate people to get vaccinated.

The government also shot and hit the bull’s eye on the graphic display with the young woman on the ventilator. This type of anxiety arousal only works when there are three ingredients: the anxiety is moderate, the ad recommends an action that significantly stops the threat, and people believe they can do what is necessary.

When it comes to the graphic display with the young woman on the ventilator, the government shot and hit the mark. Dr. Tom van Laer

The last ingredient is missing. The call in the ad to book your vaccination (now) is meant to motivate people to get the AstraZeneca vaccine, a sting that many do not trust, albeit wrongly, and others have difficulty accessing it.

The line “Book your vaccination” should be deleted so that the message focuses only on staying home and getting tested; two actions that are clearly within our control. Fear can motivate us to protect ourselves, but without believing in our ability to change something, it only leads to defense and denial of the seriousness of the threat.

The fear of ending up on a ventilator is real, but the perceived shortcomings of the AstraZeneca vaccine also casts doubt on our own ability to overcome the vaccine’s side effects. This means that significant effort is being made to control this uncomfortable feeling, and there is a good chance we are overlooking the core message.

The ad is not inspirational. On the one hand, people cope with the fear of a serious illness, on the other hand they either do not want to change their behavior or logistically cannot. This can become completely preoccupying and overwhelming for them. To reduce that fear, they are distracted from the purpose of the information, simply choosing to deny the threat and commenting that the woman on the ventilator is “just an actor.”

Instead, the message of the vaccination campaign should be positive. They want a vaccination campaign that is motivating by telling an emotional story that illustrates what’s in it for them and that exerts social pressures.

Dr. Tom van Laer is Associate Professor of Narratology at the University of Sydney. He is an expert in the science of how behavior is changed through stories such as advertising, entertainment, and social media

“Government interference has watered down the campaigns”

Government advertising seems to be aimed at “how to make it appear like we’re promoting vaccinations without actually motivating people enough to book a vaccine (assuming we don’t have enough)”.

The last thing this government wants is a campaign to get more people to get vaccinated when there aren’t enough vaccines right now. So this campaign is very government focused – all announcements, no delivery.

I certainly cannot blame the advertising agency, they are one of the best in the country. This is one case where you can see how government interference in the process has watered down what may initially have been a very good idea.

I would use fear or patriotism in vaccine advertising. Anxiety works because we are attuned to noticing negative information and it has greater persuasive power (this is why we make so many negative ads in election campaigns even though people say they hate it, we know it works), but they have to be smarter than the current one.

I would also hire someone old enough to be eligible for a vaccine.

Dee Madigan is Executive Creative Director at Campaign Edge and has contributed to numerous Labor campaigns

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