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.
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.
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.