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Dublin: 19°C Friday 19 August 2022

Anti-Covid ads: HSE says fear factor advertising may provoke 'defensive' response from viewers

Heading into a period of reduced restrictions next month, Fine Gael TD Emer Higgins said Covid adverts need to become hard hitting.

An example of a HSE Twitter advert
An example of a HSE Twitter advert
Image: HSE/Twitter

THE HSE HAS said it isn’t adopting hard-hitting, emotive messages for its Covid-19 advertisements as it may result in “defensive avoidance”, where people deny the importance of the message it’s putting across.

It comes after calls from a Fine Gael TD to replicate the kind of effective messages used in road safety and quit smoking adverts. 

Speaking to, Dublin Mid West TD Emer Higgins said that advertisements around Covid-19 should be more forceful in driving home the effect that getting and spreading this disease to others could have, and use hard-hitting messages to achieve this goal. 

A recent example of an advertisement that could be described in this manner is this advert released in late September by the Scottish government.

However, the HSE has said that it has instead focused in on a different strategy which centres on encouraging a shared sense of purpose, promoting preventative behaviours as a social norm and highlighting that we all benefit from each other’s actions to prevent the spread of Covid-19.

Since the start of the pandemic, a key part of the strategy in fighting the virus from the government’s perspective has been to try to communicate effectively to the public around the public health measures. 

Heading into the Christmas period where it is likely restrictions will be eased, compliance and adherence to whatever fresh restrictions are in place will be vital in preventing cases of the disease rising further again. 

‘Patience being tested’

NPHET’s Communications and Behavioural Advisory Group is a subgroup of the wider NPHET membership that focuses in on the best practices for communicating messages around Covid-19 and examining how people’s behaviour is changing during the periods of restrictions. 

A recent meeting, the group heard that for young people “their patience for more restrictions is being tested” and that it should aim to “simplify” its messaging in the future. 

It said that “young adults are already very vulnerable emotionally” and that it would be important in future to “simplify the guidelines in targeted communication”. 

The group also pointed to a new study which found that people consistently say the threat of fines and arrest is the least persuasive factor when it comes to convincing them to adhere to public health rules.

They noted: “Penalties may have unintended consequences of damaging social cohesion and collective willingness to engage with the restrictions.

Current compliance with mask-wearing is 96%+ according to the latest Amarach tracker survey. Introducing fines for behaviours with high compliance might backfire by 1) over-penalising those who unintentionally break the rule (e.g. forgetting your mask) and 2) by further agitating the very small minority who aren’t complying.

Heading into the Christmas period, Higgins said it’s vitally important that decisions are made to reach out to young people particularly through the mediums they use – such as Instagram, Snapchat and TikTok – to try to convey the importance of adhering to the public health guidance. 

“We need to start reaching them with advertising directly through the channels they use with the kind of emotive, hard-hitting adverts we see elsewhere.”

There’s an advert from the RSA with a group of young lads and the fear one of them has about asking his friend to wear a seat belt. We need to instill that sense of ‘it’s okay to say no to go to this big gathering a friend is organising’, and query why they’re having it in the first place.

She pointed to advertising spend from the HSE of €150,000 to date on social media Covid messaging, and says this needs to be ramped up to target the younger generation. 

When it comes to posting, however, the HSE has published more posts on Twitter than Facebook, Instagram and TikTok combined.

Road safety and smoking cessation

In information released to Higgins via parliamentary question, both the Road Safety Authority and HSE explained how they focus in on strong, often emotional, messaging in their campaigns. 

In the case of the RSA, it said it aims to “strike a strong emotional chord so that the message will resonate long after the moment”.

Well-known adverts include the 1 in 2 campaign – “I wish I was an actor” for smoking cessation – or the anatomy of a split-second road safety campaign.

When it comes to road safety and smoking adverts, there is a great deal amount of research done into the kinds of messaging it’s important to get across in advertisements to the public.

In a reply to Higgins’ PQ requesting data on how effective its advertisements are in achieving their aims, the Road Safety Authority (RSA) said: “We focus on communicating single, actionable behaviours to be adopted or changed, that are easily understood and feel both simple and necessary to address.

Our strategy also recognises that social change does not occur absolutely at the time of communication. It happens when someone makes the decision in a moment of time, usually way outside of the advertising arena. This means that we must make sure our advertising is as “immersive” as possible; leaving a profound emotional imprint for it to work. And we do so in a way that strikes a strong emotional chord so that the message will resonate long after the moment.

For its specific purposes, the RSA said it focused in on “killer behaviours” in its advertising, such as excessive speed, intoxication and driver fatigue as it seeks to warn people of the dangers of such behaviours.

When it runs campaigns, it aims to evaluate the effectiveness of them by conducting national surveys of 1,000 adults every 14 days to see how aware people are of the messaging and if they’ve taken it onboard.

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This method is one that has been used frequently during the pandemic by the Department of Health with its surveys.

The RSA said its research indicated that these messages resonated with people, with the number of people reporting changing their behaviours afterwards as high as 90% for some campaigns.

Similarly with smoking adverts, the HSE said that its inclusion of the “negative health effects of smoking” are most effective in changing attitudes and behaviour in a way that promotes quitting.

It said: “It is important that mass media campaigns are refreshed regularly (every two to three years) in order to be effective in maintaining audience engagement. There is natural campaign ‘burnout’ that occurs over time with all campaigns.”

Way forward

Emer Higgins said that the example set by these adverts is something that should be replicated in how messages around Covid-19 are communicated to the public, particularly young people. 

“My concern would be that the message hasn’t changed dramatically over the course of the pandemic,” she said. “If you haven’t learn to wash your hands at this stage, and downloaded the Covid tracker app, I don’t think any amount of adverts will make you do it now.

We need our messaging to evolve. And it’s these kind of hard-hitting adverts that capture people’s attention. I think even of the Supervalu ad this week – that got people to notice and think about their behaviour. 

After there was a spike in young people developing the disease over the summer into the autumn, Higgins said it was important to emphasise how fit and healthy people could spread Covid-19 to more vulnerable people heading into the Christmas period. 

In further statistics provided by the HSE, it said while it had posted on Twitter 1,316 times as part of its Covid-19 campaign, this dropped to 471 for Instagram, 265 for Facebook and just 10 for TikTok. 

“People in their late teens and early 20s are less likely to be watching the 9 o’clock news,” Higgins added. “We need to make sure we reach the right audience in the right way on this.”

In response to a query from Higgins, the HSE said acknowledged that there was strong evidence that smoking and road safety adverts were effective in changing behaviour. 

It said: “When it comes to the style of messaging used to encourage people to stop smoking, the inclusion of messages about the negative health effects of smoking have been shown to be effective in changing smoking knowledge, attitude and behaviour in a way that promotes quitting. However, exposure to campaigns with positive messages has also been shown to be effective at prompting people to seek help.

Although ‘hard hitting’ or negative emotive messages have been shown to be effective at encouraging people to stop smoking and improving road safety, this approach does not work for all behaviours. While targeting fears can be useful in some situations, its effectiveness is limited. Strong fear based messaging can change behaviour but can also result in defensive avoidance where people deny the importance of a danger or the importance of them taking action.

The HSE added that it’s working with a newly formed-group who advocate for and represent young people to create new advertising and messaging targeting young people in the coming months.

About the author:

Sean Murray

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