Advertising industry on Australia's latest COVID-19 vaccine campaign

Paige Murphy
By Paige Murphy | 13 July 2021

The Australian government’s COVID-19 latest vaccine ads have faced widespread criticism both inside and outside the advertising industry.

The government has launched its next phase of advertising under a new brand platform, Arm Yourself, which has rolled out nationally and was created by BMF who won the $1.8 million contract.

In addition to this, a more “graphic” and “confronting” ad has aired in Sydney amid the Delta-strain outbreak spreading across the nation’s largest city to elicit fear in those who are yet to have the vaccine. This ad was produced by Carbon Media in 2020.

"The advertisement was produced by Carbon Media in late 2020 in the event there was a further major outbreak requiring a significant communications response," a NSW Health spokesperson confirmed to AdNews.  

"The advertisement was updated and activated based on the advice of the Chief Medical Officer in consultation with the Health Minister and the head of Operation COVID Shield, in response to the seriousness of the outbreak in Sydney and the more infectious Delta strain. It is only in the Sydney market and has an M rating so is only running after 7.30pm."

The ad features a young woman on a ventilator who is breathless with a reminder to younger Australians that coronavirus is not just deadly to elderly people. The messaging has been criticised for its inconsistencies with the shortage of vaccines available to those under 40 -- many of whom are willing to get vaccinated but are not eligible.

Many industry leaders have noted that the ads were a “thankless” brief and certain to be criticised no matter what.

Others continue to point to Australia’s global counterparts like France and New Zealand as more effective approaches.

“The line ‘Arm Yourself’ also runs completely counter to the message that needs to be bought into – that getting vaccinated is for the greater good of us all,” Akkomplice founder and creative director Kenny Hill says.

“The French achieved this brilliantly with their Pharrell ‘Freedom’ ad, whilst the Kiwis did it with their usual comedic flair. Sadly, this just doesn’t have the same power to punch through all the conflicting messages flying around in the media. Opportunity sadly missed.”

New Zealand’s COVID-19 Vaccine Ad

AdNews put a call out to the industry to hear their feedback on the new ads. 

Thinkerbell founder & consumer psychologist Adam Ferrier
What is it about our federal government that has become so adverse to a creative solution to some of these big issues. An evidenced based approach to behaviour change would say a more creative approach is needed. To make this ad so dry and dull is almost irresponsible. Check out other countries' communications for a more inspired and I dare say effective approach.

DDB Sydney head of social Alex Watts
Shock tactics haven’t worked in advertising for a long time – there’s a reason cigarettes and speeding changed tactics. Worse, this ad commits that advertising cardinal sin of believing that comms can fix a broken product – in this case, the slow Australian vaccine rollout. It’s a tough brief and I’m sure this was a pretty focused request, but if this hit my desk, I’d try casting someone who better reflects the vaccine hesitant audience, or challenge the client to focus on the call to actions the average joe could actually influence. Recent work from both New Zealand and France does this by focusing on what’s coming next, and it’s a good inspiration for the government’s next message.

Amanda Spry, Lecturer of Marketing, RMIT

It is unclear what the latest iteration of the vaccine campaign is meant to achieve. As Australia remains far behind other developed countries in terms of vaccination uptake, it was absolutely crucial that the Government get this right. What we know about advertising is that it must be persuasive to motivate people to act. But the revamped ad has fallen flat - it neither stirs strong feelings nor offers digestible information about getting vaccinated. (EDS: More from Dr Spry and Colleagues HERE)
QUT educator - communications Michael Klaehn

I think the trouble with this ad is that it doesn’t deal with any of the resistance points that people are worried about. The anti-vaxxer and conspiracy theorists do a great job of making their information seem credible on the surface and for a proportion of the public it is convincing. What this needed to be was basically myth busting and showing the undecided or uninformed what the truth of the matter is and that by doing nothing they are not actually helping themselves or anyone else. There was no insight, it was “just tell them”. The government has been relying on the media for too much of its communication and with all the past and ongoing issues, the public have their doubts about the vaccination program and any reason to act. Doing nothing is not actually the best thing.

The Hallway executive creative director & partner Simon Lee
The COVID ad debate seems to hinge on whether it’s best to scare people with the reality of what the virus can do to you or inspire them with the prospect of returning to “normal” life. In a battle between fear and hope, my prefrontal cortex says hope wins which is why NZ’s “Ka Kite COVID” ad is so on the mark. And whilst our trans-Tasman cousins are opening the “metaphorical door to freedom” we’re in an emotional no man’s land with our “Arm Yourself” campaign. There’s clear, actionable simplicity in the “Arm Yourself” line, but the ads don’t trigger fear, hope or anything else and so will struggle to inspire action.

Akkomplice founder & creative director Kenny Hill
Logic makes people think, emotion makes people act. The biggest flaw here is there’s simply no emotional hook to make you feel compelled to act. The line “Arm Yourself” also runs completely counter to the message that needs to be bought into – that getting vaccinated is for the greater good of us all. The French achieved this brilliantly with their Pharrell “Freedom” ad, whilst the Kiwis did it with their usual comedic flair. Sadly, this just doesn’t have the same power to punch through all the conflicting messages flying around in the media. Opportunity sadly missed.

As for the “graphic” campaign targeting Sydney, I can’t watch this without thinking that the woman in distress represents all of us and our state of helplessness as we witness the complete mess we’re now in thanks to the failings of the Government. So, for that reason, this must be one of the biggest own goals of Government advertising. That aside, running alongside this we see countless celebrities and normal folk brush off their infection and appear on Sunrise all smiles and back to normal, making this feel fake. So, will it fail for most of the audience it’s aimed at because it’s not credible to them?

New Word Order creative director & partner Scott Oxford
I'd like to think that with behaviour change science in hand we could achieve change without fear, but this job was always going to be a great challenge or a thankless brief, or both, and public sentiment gave them no real choice but to try and scare the masses into action. It ultimately all depends on what the research is saying, and in this case the research could very well be saying this is the answer, but I remember getting 18-24s to quit smoking successfully by inspiring them, so fear isn’t always necessary.

R/GA Sydney associate creative director Ben Newman
Although “Arm Yourself” is a great line and call to action for people to come forward, I feel the story lacked humanity and emotion by not showing the faces behind the jab. The overall message is right, but its passive delivery could lead to people switching off. In contrast, the localised Sydney spots, single narrative of the breathing is far more powerful and really hits home. I’d like to hear this on radio also, but the film alone will carry enough emotion to stop people, open their minds and encourage them act in this critical time.

ThinkHQ head of creative & interactive Andy Lima
I imagine the national vaccination was an incredibly tough brief that BMF had to deliver. The vaccine subject has been with us for a while now, and we have seen other countries ramping up their efforts and partly re-opening as a result. Here, we’re doing a campaign to drive demand to a product short in supply. For those willing to take the jab, it’s a matter of eligibility and navigating conflicting information about vaccine safety. For those not willing to take the jab, the question is about finding a higher motivation to curb well-known barriers. The campaign doesn’t really tackle those issues. Does it deliver on what I assume has been the brief? I think it does. Could the brief be more insightful and seek creativity to solve a challenge? Definitely.

The so-called ‘graphic’ campaign is a bit of an anomaly, in comparison with the national campaign. Why would you juxtapose two campaigns about the same product with extremely contrasting tones? Judging by our experience in Victoria, we know that fear and guilt won’t work in getting people to change behaviours related to COVID-19, but that seems to be the strategy employed here. Clear communication in partnership with the affected communities would be a more positive approach.

Town Square executive creative director Brendan Day
The graphic execution might actually work if it was designed as a DM to Scomo to do something about the failed vaccination rollout instead of a campaign to young people about a jab that isn’t available to us. As for the other “Arm Yourself” spot, it’s just flat and uninspiring.

Neuro-Insight CEO Peter Pynta
Creating the next COVID vaccine campaign was always going to be a thankless task – with subjective commentary and opinions flying in every direction – which rarely offers anything constructive. What we do know is that context has a huge role in influencing a campaigns’ receptivity. It can enhance long term memory encoding by as much as 40%. On this evidence alone, I’d estimate the Sydney ‘Breathless Patient’ campaign to be far more effective than ‘Arm Yourself’ given the contextual backdrop in Sydney right now.

Campaigns are always a mixture of content (the what) and execution (the how). I’d congratulate the Sydney campaign’s fundamental content. It’s much closer to the proximity of The Grim Reaper content I espoused in June. Harder-hitting campaigns invariably carry ‘sharper edges’ – which is why they walk through the doorway to memory far more effectively. My tip is to continue in this direction and not let rational executional elements file these sharp edges off.

The Royals executive creative director Stu Turner
It seems like the government is hedging its bets with two very different campaigns. One nice and safe, and one trying to scare Australians out of COVID complacency. The “Arm Yourself’ execution is quite passive, family-friendly, appealing to our sense of community and tribal instinct for preservation. It’s sure to inspire some action by those who think beyond their own safety and health.

But for those thinking mostly about themselves, there’s the graphic campaign showing a young woman struggling for air, ticking all the boxes in classic fear advertising – but it’s mired down by mixed messaging. The government is reminding us that COVID-19 is not just an older person’s disease, but we also know there isn’t enough vaccine for under 40s. So, they’re scaring us but not giving us a solution?

Despite the lack of vaccine supply, the ad is powerful and the message is clear. For Australians who might not have experienced COVID symptoms first hand or lost loved ones to the virus, this might be what they need to see. If either of these campaigns helps more people get the vaccine, I’m all for it.

Brother & Co creative director Andrew Thompson
This work is copping a caning, so I won’t just add to that. Rather, I’ll offer an opinion on why it’s not hitting the mark. Great compelling work comes when an agency’s creative leader sits opposite the CEO and says “This is going to work. This will drive the change you are after.” The CEO, having paid her agency to deliver this kind of work, trusts their judgement and approves it.

There’s not much trust evident in this work. Too many opinions have been involved. I’d love to see the work that came out of Siimon Reynolds presenting directly to Lieutenant General John Frewen. I bet it would be much closer to what Australia desperately needs. (Along with another million doses of Pfizer).

Archibald Williams executive creative director Matt Gilmour
I think the Australian Government marketing team has a bigger problem than just these awful ads. “Australia” needs to sort out its tone of voice. We’re all over the place. We need to invest in setting up our Government comms with a consistent voice. If New Zealand can do it, why can’t we? From drug driving, to police recruitment, to vaccine roll out, it all feels like NZ. Why can’t we feel like Australia? We’re a country that has permission to be irreverent or to take the piss, or whatever. Let’s just be it, consistently.

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