Why we should use ads to scare the crap out of vaccine resisters

Those who are not afraid of COVID-19 are behaving irrationally. It’s time to use emotional and graphic advertising to change their minds about vaccination. It worked for smoking; it will work for COVID.

Content warning: today’s post contains graphic and disturbing images. If these scare you more than COVID, please get your priorities straight.

We scared smokers into quitting

Here’s a chart of smoking rates in America, from the American Lung Association.

American Lung Association

How did the rate of smoking go from 42% of the population to 14%, and youth smoking from 36% to 9%?

The causes are complicated. Certainly it made a difference that depictions of smoking in media declined; the government banned advertising cigarettes; smoking was prohibited in many buildings, airplanes, and other locations; and over time, fewer people smoking reinforced the idea that it wasn’t a safe behavior, extending the trend.

But a big reason is that, in part because of advertising, everyone — everyone — now knows that smoking is dangerous to your health.

The health danger of smoking is abstract. It’s easy to smoke now and not think about how you’ll likely end up with lung cancer 30 years later. To reinforce that connection and make it real and effective, public-service advertising vividly demonstrated what it felt like to suffer from smoking-related disease.

In Australia, the government mandated horrifying pictures of disease right on the cigarette packages.

It took a long time. But it’s not too hard to imagine that, subjected to these images and this advertising, many either chose never to start smoking or decided to quit.

Let’s use a similar strategy to drive vaccination

In the United States, the vaccination rate among those who are eligible is now over 70%. But the remaining 30% are hesitating. Many are receiving mixed messages from their elected officials about government attempts to increase the vaccination rate.

This is a problem, because the Delta Variant of COVID is spreading rapidly and 99% of those who end up in the hospital are unvaccinated. The continued spread enables the evolution of even more virulent variants, further increasing the risk.

Who is left to convince? There are hesitant people who are concerned about vaccine safety, cost, and side effects. And there are hard-core antivaxxers who are convinced the vaccine is dangerous, despite evidence from hundreds of millions of vaccinated people.

Statistics are not going to convince these folks. Neither are pleas to get vaccinated to contribute to the health of the community. These people are refusing because they perceive the vaccine to be worse than the risk of getting sick and dying from COVID.

But many of them are capable of changing their minds. In Louisiana, where the Delta Variant is spreading quickly among the unvaccinated, vaccination rates have increased. Why? Because Delta is scary and people are scared.

Fear is good. Fear is effective. If there is a real threat, fear motivates people to act.

It’s time to start an ad campaign. And not a feel-good, everybody-needs-to-work-together campaign either. I’m talking about a campaign based on good old fear and disgust.

We keep hearing stories from people who regret not getting vaccinated and are now being devastated by disease. Some of them, like Travis Campbell, are making videos about their experience.

It’s time the unvaccinated got a chance to see just what the experience of getting infected and hospitalized may look like. People may imagine that they are not afraid of death, but everyone is afraid of getting hospitalized and having tubes stuck down their orifices.

Pic from Farhad Babaei/ Magnus News. [Photo via Newscom]

Here’s what to do

Raise money for this campaign from the federal government’s existing media budget, state governments, health insurers, and nonprofits like the Gates Foundation.

Hire the best advertising teams.

Charge them to create ads with the goal of increasing vaccinations through fear and disgust — just like the anti-smoking campaigns.

Use video from people who’ve suffered long-term effects from COVID, people with COVID in hospitals, relatives of the dead and suffering, and health care workers. I want to see real people who have experienced suffering, people of all races and ages and economic classes. Show me what it looks like to get intubated — that will scare some people for sure.

Here’s a possible tag-line: The suffering is real. The vaccine is free. Here’s how to get it: nomorecovid.org.

Place the public-service ads on television and on social media sites like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and YouTube.

These campaigns won’t have an instantaneous effect. They won’t persuade everyone. But advertising works — just as did with smokers. One by one, the repetition will win over hesitant individuals, resistant individuals, and eventually, even some hard-core antivaxxers. If we want to make an impact, we need to start immediately.

It’s time to take the gloves off. COVID is horrifying to experience. Let’s make sure everybody can see that.

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  1. Blame, shame (those two are abbreviated “BS” btw), fear, guilt, threats, and the like are the weakest motivators–although I have found that a gun motivates folks fine. Inspiration is so much better. And threat of violence is the ONLY known motivator of others. (Motivation is an internal feature.)

    Everyone my age and a bit older (so, say 60 and younger) knows and has known that tobacco is bad for you since they were born. Yet, a good amount of people in that age range tried and liked smoking, despite the known health challenges.

    The drug on eggs scrambled brain ads, DARE, the trached singer (when will he tour?!), truth is whatever we say ads, etc. are embarrassing and likely to turn off thinking people (OK, we are a minority, etc.). (Finally, recently we have gotten wiser and realize that dumb programs like DARE are more dangerous than the drugs they tried to stop at some a high cost and low effectiveness. In the safety profession, using that word loosely, we are beyond scare tactics to make out point.

    Let’s learn from failure and not make those mistakes again. We are better than that.

    For tobacco, some things that mostly worked–raising the cost of tobacco through huge taxes and no-smoking laws. And dispassionate education.

    For COVID: things that did not work: bad/no science, shitty communication, conflicting messages from govt and “experts,” flip-flopping without reason, the inability to distinguish between science and policy, the inability to deliver vaccines and testing, zero articulation of goals and thresholds, etc. We have a lot we can work on to be better ourselves and the reluctant will likely follow.

  2. The post is fantastic. The NUMBerger response is ridiculous. Fear, guilt, and shame are very motivating. Hundreds of millions of people received full vaccinations because they feared dying or spreading the disease. The fear of eternal damnation and/or being ostracized governs the religious choices of countless people. Shame felt due to the Native American genocide, American slavery, Jim Crow, and the Holocaust affects the conduct and spoken words of countless people. As a resident of Floriduh, I beg everyone to scare people away ftom death by DeSantis.

    1. We’ll agree to disagree. We can be better. We know how to be better and we need not be terrible people no matter what we think of others. Norman

  3. Actually, I’ve been intrigued by how smoking was eradicated, and have looked into it. An ad man won a contest in CA and the chance to create the ad showing industry execs meeting around a board room table: “Gentlemen, gentlemen, the tobacco industry has a very serious multibillion-dollar problem. We need more cigarette smokers, pure and simple. Every day 2,000 Americans stop smoking. And another 1,100 also quit — technically, they die. That means this business needs 3,000 fresh, new volunteers every day. So, forget all that ‘cancer, heart disease, stroke’ stuff. Gentlemen, we’re not in this business for our health. Hahahaha!” This message took the finger-pointing away from the individual smoker and pointed it at the industry.

    The next change was that instead of getting people to quit, they focused on getting people not to start. Teens and young adults, it turns out, were the vulnerable ones. Adults, in general, don’t start. Florida got a settlement from the tobacco industry to recoup some of the medicare money it had to spend on seniors with lung cancer. They used the money to engage young people, by creating a listening summit that involved teens throughout FL. They asked them to rate ad campaigns that showed people getting ill from smoking. They panned all of them. Kids don’t think about death — they’re invincible. So, they asked them to help design new ad campaigns (the Truth series). Then they organized a train to go throughout FL picking up kids, educating them about smoking, giving them swag, and taking them to a music concert. They reduced the # of new smokers by around 60K, I believe. Joining/belonging is a better motivator than ostracizing for teens.

    I didn’t watch all the ads in your video, but I do remember Joe Camel with a limp cigarette… I have heard that long COVID may cause impotence, but I don’t know if that’s true or if it matters anymore.

    In any case, I’m not convinced an ad campaign could be any better than videos made by people who didn’t get the vaccine who got sick and now wish they had gotten it. Can’t get more credible than that. Especially, if they’re someone from the same “tribe” — religion, politics, age group, etc. — as the viewer. Also compelling are videos from doctors and nurses showing what overloaded healthcare systems look like.

    I heard an interview with Jim Clyburn that rang true. He said (I paraphrase), “We have to listen carefully to what people are afraid of — why they are still hesitating. We have to find someone they will listen to.”

    For Trump followers, we can give them privacy and secrecy so no one will know. For religious, we need religious leaders to bring congregations together and get vaccinations at their place of worship. For lower-income folks, we have to get their employers to agree to them getting paid time off to get vaccinated and recover, if necessary. Doctors need to be speaking to their patients. I spoke with a pregnant woman who said, “Well, I just got a tetanus shot. If my doctor thought getting a Covid vaccination was important, he would have said something, but he didn’t.”

    All that said, vaccinated people losing their patience may also be effective to a point. When people can’t get healthcare because there are no more beds… If it comes down to vaccination passports needed to go to a concert, job, or travel, they may come around, but with today’s politics, I don’t know if that’ll happen.

    People want to belong and do what their friends are doing (“People like us do things like this.”) Each of us has a network, and we should use it. Or, we can sit back and watch the end times roll.

  4. I wonder if COVID might become the new smoking, which kills about the same amount of Americans. We ought to hope not as we are comfortable with smoking deaths…

  5. I wrote a 600 word essay in reply to several of the commenters above. But it’s worthless because nobody actually reads comments. They speak their peace and leave. . . . . . . . While Josh claims 99% of the Wuhan 2.0 victims were not vaccinated, I’m seeing statistics covered up by Big Media from Europe and other countries running as high as 25% of C0VID 2.0 sufferers are vaccinated. Let’s hope Josh’s claims are more accurate than others. But in practice, everyone I know who has gotten the variant was vaccinated. So, Josh’s claim doesn’t hold much credibility for me. . . . . . . . . That’s why I’m using a mask, avoiding crowds, and distancing. I’m a grownup. I can make intelligent decisions about my behavior. I’ve been fully vaccinated. I believed Joe Biden when he promised me I would not get infected if I got vaccinated. I believed Joe Biden when he promised to cure cancer if he was elected. We don’t need a scary ad campaign. We need adults to intelligently manage their own lives, and we need a government who tells the truth, and backs up their promises. I’ll publish my 600 word essay in my own column.

    1. Fred, no vaccine is 100% effective. The ones that have been developed so far were significantly effective against the original COVID-19 virus. The problem is that there were so many unvaccinated people that the virus had the opportunity to spread and mutate to a form that didn’t exist when the vaccines were being developed. As science learns more, things change.

      I don’t know if the answer is scare advertising or not, but the virus will just keep forming new mutations unless every country gets more people vaccinated.

  6. It comes down to utilitarianism vs, individualism. We need to consider what is best for the greatest number of people. Sometimes the rights of an individual DON’T supersede those of the overall population. It’s the same for guns (IMO)…I totally get it that people like guns…I like guns…I’ve shot guns…it’s fun as hell to shoot guns. I also don’t have a problem with hunting (although it’s not my thing…but I understand the need for it in the case of curbing populations, and many do it for sustenance)…but when you make the argument “they’re for my safety”…the numbers don’t play out…there are FAAAAR more casualties by gun violence than there are people being saved by citizens being armed…so you have to consider what’s best for the greatest number of people…which is to take the guns away. I’m sorry…get a new hobby. And I know your beloved Constitution says you can have them…but the US Constitution is a dynamic document that has been amended a whopping TWENTY SEVEN TIMES…to suit the times. But I digress…I am trying to illustrate the point that a free society isn’t without limitations…and even restrictions. Anyone who has ever had a child in a hospital knows there are myriad procedures that are done on every child in the days following birth (and sometimes before birth)…many of which are based on minimal/shady science…or are to prevent something that occurs in 1/1,000,000 babies…yet ALL children MUST get the procedure…and you CANNOT REFUSE or the hospital will take legal action against you (trust me…I tried)…how is this different? With a few limited exceptions (in some states) our children also MUST BE VACCINATED to attend school. Period. Why is this different? And don’t tell me that it’s because this vaccine is experimental/temporary use…this vaccine is INCREDIBLY safe…the majority of “reactions” have likely just been coincidental…but impulsive people don’t know the difference between correlation and causation. But the longer people hold out getting vaccinated, the longer this virus will persist in the population and be able to continue mutating…and there is a very good chance a variant FAR WORSE than delta will pop up…not only more contagious, but more virulent/deadly…and one that the current vaccines don’t work on…and then, my friends, we’re going to all be PDS and JWF (Pretty Damn Screwed and Jolly Well Fucked). The arguments against vaccination simply don’t hold weight…and should not be taken seriously. I appreciate people’s concerns and skepticism…but at some point the government has to just say “you just have to.”

    1. I trust people to think for themselves, despite the strong evidence against that.

      We do know that scare tactics never work and we would never want them to. We are better than that.

  7. Well I’m haven’t quit smoking and I’ll be damned to get vaccinated with something that took days to come up with and they still have nothing for the common cold.

    1. It didn’t take days to come up with, it took the better part of a year, with tens of thousands of people working around the clock …millions of man hours…with basically no financial limitations. There are people deserving of Nobel prizes for what has been accomplished in such a short amount of time. And the common cold doesn’t kill people (or at least anywhere near the number of people CoVid does). It’s apples to oranges. But to your point, these new, very successful mRNA vaccines, might well have paved the way for new vaccines for other diseases…like one for the common cold maybe. But because you’ll refuse that too…like you do for CoVid…we’ll never eradicate it and it will continue to have vectors to move around in, mutating, and coming up with new variants that are increasingly more and more cunning and elusive.

  8. Josh I actually never saw your name on your article or your credentials. Scaring a patriot in to socialism is like holding back the tide. I’m afraid most of us who understand you control the media and critically think for ourselves will soon fight back