The Victorian Government has used a variety of advertising angles in the COVID-19 campaigns: the information based ads about lockdown rules, the “hard-hitting” ads with real survivor stories of the virus, and the latest ads using well-known Victorian personalities to convince us to stick to the rules.
For this article, I am going to focus on the ads using survivor stories: the ads that were launched as the “hard-hitting” campaign.
Sarah has been battling #coronavirus (#COVID19) for nearly 8 weeks. She had to make the difficult decision to isolate away from her two boys & has been in & out of hospital - including after filming. Wishing you a safe recovery Sarah 💕— VicGovDHHS (@VicGovDHHS) August 13, 2020
Info: https://t.co/E3R4iczbHH #COVID19Vic pic.twitter.com/AC6LLT4Rql
Given the emotional nature of the advertisements, it is useful to reflect on what science tells us about designing public health advertising to drive the adoption of desirable choices.
In the field of behaviour change science, ads that try to tap into our emotional reaction to an issue, rather than just our rational or informational needs, are called “fear appeals” because they try to leverage our fear of an issue as a way to jump-start us into action.
Back in the ‘60s, researchers looked at the best way to encourage college students to get immunised against tetanus. They found that the best recipe was a relatively gory image along with an action plan of how to get the immunisation.
It’s important to note that the gory image by itself wasn’t enough and the action plan without the image didn’t work very well either – both elements were necessary to maximise action.
Other communication models support a similar recipe: you need high threat (make it real and worrying) and high efficacy (give people an action plan) to encourage behaviour change.
A recent meta-analysis of fear appeals comes to the same conclusion: successful behaviour change requires high fear/arousal, high threat, and high efficacy.
What this means is that there are important ingredients for a successful fear appeal advertising campaign:
• Perceived threat: the issue needs to be presented in a way that makes people think it is a real and serious threat to them or their loved ones – the “that could be me” response
• Perceived efficacy: the ad needs to provide an action plan or solution to motivate people into action rather than paralysis – the “I can do something about it” response
If an ad gets the threat right, but doesn’t include the efficacy angle, viewers are left in a “fear” state and unlikely to feel like they can do anything. If both angles are executed well, they enter a “danger” state and this leads to action.
Of course, there is another possibility: well-constructed efficacy messages, but insufficient fear – this risks the viewer not receiving sufficient motivation to act at all.
The academic consensus seems to be that when used carefully, a well-constructed fear appeal can be the most effective path to getting attention and encouraging action. This should be the guiding principle of the behaviour change advertiser’s playbook.
One challenge of dialling up the emotion to communicate the threat is that people often say that they don’t “like” ads with gory or confronting images.
However, we’re not supposed to “like” them – this is not about selling products or creating warm and fuzzy consumer connections – it’s about selling a message and getting people to pay attention.
At the most serious end of the spectrum, these ads are trying to save lives.
When we consider how many messages and ads people are exposed to every day, a well-crafted fear appeal ad has the power to cut through the clutter, make people think, and start the process of behaviour change.
Of course, advertising alone is not the panacea for behaviour change – there will always be people who disregard advice, ignore ads, or even wilfully defy government legislation. However, when designed and executed well, public health advertising has a large and important role to play in behaviour change.
Some of the most successful behaviour change ads in the world have come from Victoria: The TAC, WorkSafe, and Cancer Council Victoria have all made ads that tick every box recommended for high impact.
The best of these ads are hard to watch, but they are also hard to ignore – and, most importantly, they are effective.
The very first ad from the TAC aired in 1989. It was a drink-driving ad where we see Lucy, a young woman, being admitted to hospital emergency after her boyfriend crashed the car while drunk.
It shows graphic imagery of Lucy’s injuries, heart-wrenching scenes of doctors telling Lucy’s parents that she might lose her leg and may have head injuries, the rage of Lucy’s parents when they see her boyfriend (the drunk driver) in the hospital waiting room, the introduction of “bloody idiot” to our lexicon, and a clear directive – “don’t drink and drive”.
This ad is hard to watch – it is gritty, it is raw, it feels real – but it began to change the perception and the social acceptability of drink driving.
It also follows the fear appeal recipe with precision:
• High arousal – in spades. I challenge you to watch this ad and not get a tear in your eye.
• High threat – tick. It shows the harsh reality of drink-driving: if you drink and drive, this could be you.
• High efficacy – the action plan is simple: don’t drink and drive.
So, let’s look at the Victorian Government COVID ads through the lens of the successful fear appeal approach.
The ads are helping to individualise the impact of the pandemic (which is great – we know that people tune out to statistics and big numbers), but I question if they are hard-hitting enough.
Are they really getting people to think “this is horrible and this could happen to me or my loved ones”?
In the ads we hear the stories of COVID wards, ventilators, illness, and even death, but we don’t see it and feel the emotion in the way we do during the TAC ad described above.
The action plans are there (wear a mask, stay home, practice social distancing), but they are less impactful because the threat hasn’t been dialled up enough.
I hope that we don’t need another round of COVID ads and that we get the virus under control sooner rather than later.
However, if we do need more ads, I hope that we can harness Victoria’s strong history of hard-hitting effective behaviour change ads: keep the action plans there, but dial up the emotion and hit hard.
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