Australia's adland - 'We need a high emotion COVID vaccine campaign now'

Chris Pash
By Chris Pash | 24 June 2021

Adman Russel Howcroft has been joined by other Australian advertising figures in calling for a powerful campaign to rein in the vaccine hesitancy horse.

He and many others have declared that the federal government’s current campaign is unlikely to do more than simply inform.

“We need high emotion, designed to trigger action,” Howcroft writes in an opinion article in The Age and the Sydney Morning Herald.

“We need advertising to reinstate the sense of collective that we mastered last year. We were ‘all in this together’ at the beginning of COVID-19 and we need to be ‘all in this together’ in order to end it.

“We need to be ready to mobilise in droves, as soon as our major vaccine supply issues are overcome.” 

Earlier this month BMF was repotedly appointed by the government to create ads targeted at Australians under the age of 40. The campaign is yet to be finalised but is said to include celebrities, jokes and songs to "emotionally entice" those under 40 to get the vaccine.

Ad industry authorities agree that emotion is the key to an effective vaccine ad.

Margie Reid, chief executive officer, Thinkerbell: "Russ has hit the nail on the head. The negative talk is far out weighing the education and reassurance of the need to vaccinate our nation.

"We need a campaign to snap us out of our complacency and stop living in this bubble. We need an informed, creative, behaviour change idea asap.

"It is, I'm sure Russ would agree, a race. Advertising is a good way to win."

Independent creative Adrian Elton: "“I’m absolutely on board with the need for a major campaign that galvanises national sentiment in the way that only the best advertising can.

"The extent to which the messaging has been missing in action has been all kinds of astonishing - although to be fair, it’s in perfect lockstep with SloMo’s recalcitrant penchant for dragging his feet. Unsurprisingly, this lamentable vacuum of authoritative communication has made for the perfect storm with regards to the spread of dangerous misinformation.

"But notwithstanding the debacle surrounding the booking process for vaccinations in Victoria - all of the practical messaging (including followup SMSs) seems to have run like clockwork - and the operation at Jeff’s shed was incredible – even if the experience was disconcertingly like being on the set of a dystopian Wes Andersen meets Stanley Kubrick flick.

"So with the practical comms working, what we’re fundamentally missing is the critical emotion based ‘meta’ messaging that in turn can operate those very consequential behavioural levers.

"But maybe somewhere in between the TAC’s ‘Bloody Idiot’ admonition style of advertising on the one hand, and the saccharin sweet, inspirational Qantas kid’s choir approach on the other, lies a third way that could potentially be explored.

"That third way being the piss-take, which is so quintessentially Aussie. Indeed, what I’m talking about is nothing less than a redux of ‘Dumb Ways To Die’.

"This updated version could prominently feature anti-vaxxers dying entirely avoidable deaths while coughing up animated lungs and so forth. Sure, that’s all pretty gruesome. But the animated characters would be so cute.”

Jasmin Bedir, CEO at Innocean: "Russel is right on the money, vaccine hesitancy is going to be a real issue and we do need a vaccination campaign to be ready for spring when supply issues are no longer the main obstacle.

"The current infomercial-style messaging will not have the cut through and overcome people’s fears about side effects, or address their apathy.

"Therefore I’m not convinced that a 'fighting fire with fire' approach a la “Grim reaper” would work. Fear only works if people see a genuine threat in COVID, which so far we’ve been mostly sheltered from.

"In my opinion, we’ll need a more inclusive approach that re-unites Australia, and makes COVID the common enemy. It needs to be done in a way that resonates with salt-of-the-earth Aussies, not just the white collar mob with the cushy WFH environment. Relevancy is everything here.

"In my home country of Germany, 'The Hoff' helped Germans to understand how they can 'sleeves up' to find their freedom – highly relevant and easy to understand to the average German.

"For us it’s not so much about freedom as we’ve been able to roam relatively freely, but maybe it’s about what we as Australians tend to do really well, which is to be safe. We are really, really compliant when it comes to following public health orders. So perhaps we should explore this a little bit more and find a way to do an emotive and inclusive 'Nobody is safe until all of us are safe' vaccination campaign.

"One thing is for sure, we’re definitely running out of time."

Howcroft has suggested a campaign to scare people into action might be needed.

“This was a surprise to some, as this goes against a general philosophy I have in advertising.” he says.

“The idea of government acting as strict parent and the citizen as naughty child in communication has always irked me.

“Positive adult-to-adult communication has always been my view on where great comms lie.

“However, it would appear that Australians do not act unless they are scared into it (the AIDS Grim Reaper campaign is often cited as a national health campaign gold standard). It seems we happily act as a collective when faced with fear.

"But it is not just the message we need to get right. The ‘media weight’ – the amount of money spent on vaccination advertising campaigns, needs to be reassessed.

"There is a rule, of sorts, that for every negative comment you need seven positive comments. This is the fundamental role that advertising plays. Advertising is the positive impact that you invest in, in order to negate that one negative comment. It is a simple 7:1 equation.”

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