Adland's solution for a successful COVID-19 vaccine campaign

Paige Murphy
By Paige Murphy | 3 June 2021

The federal government has continued to come under fire for its banal advertising to promote the availability of the COVID-19 vaccination and influence Australians to get the jab.

Earlier in the year, the government announced it would put $24 million into advertising the vaccine to different groups.

Since then, it has rolled out basic animations targeted at over 50s which have been labelled ineffective.

On Monday, it was revealed that BMF had been appointed by the government to create the next round of ads targeted at Australians under the age of 40.

The campaign is yet to be finalised, but it has been reported that it will include celebrities, jokes and songs to "emotionally entice" those under 40 to get the vaccine.

AdNews called on industry experts to share their thoughts on what would make a successful an effective vaccine ad.

For many it boiled down to appealing to Australians through emotion, as many other successful campaigns do.

“There’s plenty of evidence recently that rational campaigns can only do so much,” Neuro Insight CEO Peter Pynta says.

“... no amount of rational communication could stop the panic buying of toilet paper, rice or fresh meat – emotions win and emotions drive behaviour.”

The industry also cited social norming and working with a range of diverse and influential people would be important in encouraging the community to get the jab.

Wavemaker national head of content and partnerships Shivani Maharaj says using culture and content will help drive behavioural change.

“To encourage Australians to take the vaccination we need to think about what it is that Australians are influenced by, who do they look up to and listen to? Athletes, influencers, musicians and celebrities are high on that list,” Maharaj says.

“We should be working with Australian media and personalities and writing this into the storylines of popular shows like Home and Away, content and dare I say it even with song lyrics and music videos.”

Check out the industry’s thoughts below:

Hardhat co-founder & strategy director Dan Monheit
One of the most important considerations for driving wide scale behaviour change is social norming. The target audience needs to feel that people who are just like them (or better yet, just like their aspirational selves) are already doing the thing we’re asking of them. Social norming can be accelerated in many ways including:

  • Use of diverse talent, making it easier for our audience to see themselves in the ads
  • The choice of media, focussing on large scale, publicly consumed channels like outdoor
  • Merchandising the moment, making it easier to notice and share. This can be done for the real world with badges, stickers and tote bags for the recently vaccinated, as well as for social media by creating instagrammable moments along the way (selfie walls shouldn’t be the exclusive domain of new restaurants and award shows!).

Special Group Australia founding partner - Melbourne and strategy director Bec Stambanis
I think we need to walk away from the well-trodden infographic approach and gear everything towards strategies that will prompt tangible and rapid behaviour change. Firstly, the campaign should not be a governmental voice. This should be Australians talking to Australians in an honest and empathetic way, showing that the vaccine is our ticket out of this. It’s the only way to protect our way of life and everything we love. We need easy ways to show others that we are on board. Social proofing is far more powerful in inspiring new behaviours than a government PSA. The more people we know being vaccinated, the more likely we are to model that behaviour. Secondly, we need to address the fears and barriers head-on to counteract all the misinformation and myths that are currently louder and more potent than the facts, and it doesn’t have to be serious. We can be direct and disarming in how we address the fears but it has to be done. Lastly, we need bold, consistent media to drive the message home. This should be a campaign people can’t ignore.

Neuro Insight CEO Peter Pynta
On a macro level: emotional and high impact. My immediate recommendation is to consider a campaign that is similar to the Grim Reaper HIV Awareness in the ‘80s. We’re in a similar – if not a more precarious – public health situation now. This campaign was highly successful in driving awareness. The hallmarks of this style of communication are un-apologetically high impact, significant cut-through and target the emotional level (not the rational). It’s this emotional construct which is one of the keys - tapping a deep human truth (or this case fear).

But these campaigns naturally carry ‘sharper edges’ – which is why they are so successful. They also take courageous decision-making and rock-solid insight to commission and deploy.
Has there been a more compelling reason to run a deeply emotional piece of creative in recent times? No, I think not! We need real behaviour change – fast! There’s plenty of evidence recently that rational campaigns can only do so much. Yes, they communicate important facts eg. Social distance 1.5m, wear a mask, don’t travel more than 5kms. But no amount of rational communication could stop the panic buying of toilet paper, rice or fresh meat – emotions win and emotions drive behaviour.

On a micro level: it only takes a moment to work! Similar to all great emotionally driven campaigns, it’s likely that – at an executional level – the creative (if in audio visual form) will have a couple of deeply emotional moments. The point at which the message lands, and emotions help open that all-important doorway to memory. Emotions can also help ‘colour’ and ‘contextualise’ these memories. If this occurs, then – and only then – can communication begin to work and start to change behaviour. If the moment is powerfully stored in memory, then it will only take the re-creation of this one moment to powerfully reinforce the original message. This is the ideal way to glue the media ecosystem together around a creative moment and an emotional trigger.

MediaCom national head of strategy Tyler Greer
Following some of the basics of established behaviour change, frameworks would likely be just the shot in the arm the vaccination program needs. Speaking in voices that audiences like and can relate to; goal setting to compel action (55% of Australians vaccinated already!); and social norming to drive the idea that it’s non-vaccination that goes against the herd. All of this can be warm, light and attractive in its messaging. Generally speaking, people want to be a part of collective action; pulling the levers on this is the key to moving the needle.

TBWA Sydney strategy directors Katharina Vassar & Sebastian Revell
Fortunately, in Australia we have been spared the severity of the pandemic that other countries have experienced. Unfortunately, that sense of safety makes it difficult to create motivation to get vaccinated.

Our “new normal” of slightly-heightened-precaution feels more familiar and controllable than a new foreign vaccine that hasn’t been road-tested. To alleviate the fear of the unknown we must make the vaccine feel normal, acceptable, and expected, and clearly it isn’t enough for experts to say, “it’s okay”. Through the right messages, we can create the collective feeling that we are all a part of a bigger movement to secure the future of Australia, and that we are in this together. As a start:

  • Show a diverse range of people getting the vaccine, from cultural leaders to unknown faces, to both norm and prove the rollout.
  • Create a collective goal (like Towards Zero) and frame the ongoing success – “35% of Australia are helping us all see loved ones sooner”, and so on.

Archibald Williams executive creative director Matt Gilmour
I think the current creative approach to ‘selling the jab’, is akin to a bad airline safety video. So using that analogy, perhaps an answer that would get people’s attention, is to do what Air New Zealand did (before other airlines copied them) and bring some entertainment to the message that nobody wants to hear. Start with a celebrity, get them to take the piss out of themselves, tell a few gags, then they get stuck with the needle. Maybe people will just laugh. But at least they’ll get the message.

Wavemaker national head of content & partnerships Shivani Maharaj
Australians are sceptical and whilst trust is at an all-time high since COVID hit, 45% of Australians still do not trust the federal government so it doesn’t surprise me that the current communications isn’t working. To encourage Australians to take the vaccination we need to think about what it is that Australians are influenced by, who do they look up to and listen to? Athletes, influencers, musicians and celebrities are high on that list. We should be working with Australian media and personalities and writing this into the storylines of popular shows like Home and Away, content and dare I say it even with song lyrics and music videos. Culture drives behaviour change so you need people who drive that culture to shift the dial.

Host/Havas chief strategy officer Olly Taylor
If we’ve learnt anything from this pandemic it’s that science is way more helpful than opinion. So rather than making assumptions about what makes for convincing vaccination messaging for the ‘on the fence’ audience, I’d be testing the life out of it. Is the message best coming from the community or the government? Is being a good citizen more motivating than not being a selfish one? Are people more fearful of the life disruption or the virus itself? Should it be straight or funny? No doubt we all have opinions on what would work but maybe right now they are better parked in favour of the science.

The Hallway head of strategy Tim Mottau
If there’s one thing we can be reasonably sure of right now, it’s that we’re all pretty tired of downsides and uncertainty. So, the last thing we need to feel is anything other than positive and optimistic about getting vaccinated. Social norming or appealing to our individual motivations could both play a role, but let’s keep it emotionally uplifting. It would be great to see this moment as an opportunity to look forward to a post-COVID future by inspiring all of us to do our bit to make it happen as quickly as possible.

VMLY&R Australia & New Zealand CEO Thomas Tearle
This is no ordinary government communication campaign, the context proves that. And Australia needs it done on fast-forward. So here’s what I’d do: make all communications clear, judgement-free, and pull the right behavioural levers to prompt action. Clear doesn’t equal boring. I’d develop a strong visual language and audio code, and keep information simple while showing where to look deeper. Judgement-free is trickier. It’s about who delivers the message, so I’d get the right spokespeople doing the myth-busting for different cultural and demographic groups. The Elton John and Michael Caine NHS work in the UK does this beautifully for instance.

For behavioural levers, social proofing helps motivate people, and ‘loss aversion’ taps into vaccination as our ticket to open borders and no more lockdowns as we see in the “Back in the game” work in the US. The freedoms that a vaccinated nation provides in fully opening up the economy is obviously something many businesses have vested in so I’d love to think that more brands will invest in pro-vaccine activity like Budweiser’s “Good times are coming” ad, again in America.

By All Means creative partner Ed Howley
Perhaps 'Scotty from Marketing' has Lara Worthington (nee Bingle)'s number still? He could get her to reprise her role from his Tourism Australia days. But this time she'd be getting the jab at an empty vaccination centre asking "Where the bloody hell are you, Australia?". In all seriousness anything would work better than the Federal Government's current campaign messaging... which for the life of me I can't recall. And that is the first thing that needs fixing. A clear message executed memorably. Wouldn’t it be nice if this next campaign could unify Australia, at a time where we’re divided by state border lines, and inspire them in the fight against this bloody virus.

Have something to say on this? Share your views in the comments section below. Or if you have a news story or tip-off, drop us a line at

Sign up to the AdNews newsletter, like us on Facebook or follow us on Twitter for breaking stories and campaigns throughout the day.

comments powered by Disqus