COVID-19 campaigns need to be shaped by evidence, it’s the only way we’ll save lives

Despite extensive training, doctors often don't wash their hands. So how can creatives design campaigns that convince Australians to maintain such behaviour, Erik Denison asks. Government campaigns need to save people's lives and jobs, and that will require more than agency brainstorms, on-brand fonts, catchy phrases, and shareable content.

Australia’s creatives will play a central role in efforts to avoid a resurgence of the COVID-19 virus, but they will need to get it right. For campaigns to be effective, agencies and clients need to use science and evidence, rather than hunches and brainstorms, to shape their briefs and strategies.

In the first phase of the pandemic, fear of the unknown – rather than the government ads, which received poor reviews – was likely the main driver of the rapid changes we saw to behaviours, including the public’s willingness to stay home and comply with the many new rules.

In the second phase, the fear of the virus has decreased (despite a massive Victorian outbreak), and the novelty of staying home has ended. If we want to avoid a second wave, Australian’s leading scientists say effective communication must play a central role in maintaining “widespread public support and participation” in requests to minimise travel, maintain social distancing, wash our hands, and download the COVIDSafe App.

Unfortunately, we see worrying signs of decreasing public support and engagement. This is shown by the more than $2m in fines handed out by police in Queensland, influential role models ignoring social distancing requests (shared with followers), and resistance to downloading the government app. This is despite the Prime Minister’s threats that pubs will remain closed if the app is not widely used.

Over the next few weeks and months, saving people’s lives, and their jobs (the real campaign metrics) will require effective, high-impact campaigns that engage and unite Australians toward a common purpose of protecting our most vulnerable.

These campaigns will require more than agency brainstorms, on-brand fonts, memorable and catchy phrases, and clever, shareable content. Clients and agencies need to start using research and evidence from psychology, behavioural science, and public health fields to shape their briefs and pitches.

Maintaining behaviour change is hard

It is hard to get people to adopt new health-related behaviours, and stick with them. Core behaviours are learned from a young age, or adopted later in life because they provide unique benefits and have become habitual (e.g. Netflix binging, drinking).

Society-level behaviour change campaigns normally require significant time and are multi-faceted (e.g. drink driving, wearing seat belts, indoor smoking). But the world is far from normal and we urgently need Australians to continue behaviours that are antithetical to their laid-back lifestyles.

Designing behaviour change campaigns also requires different approaches than those used to sell products. Advertising is rarely developed to teach people new behaviours (e.g. washing hands, remaining socially distant), or encourage the permanent adoption of these new behaviours. Instead, most marketing is designed to provide information that influences people to switch brand preferences, for example, encouraging people to buy your client’s soap over another.

The most recent ads released by the government take this conventional advertising approach of information provision.

To illustrate why providing information, alone, is unlikely to change behaviours, I often share the results of studies which examine rates of handwashing by doctors. In medical school, doctors are repeatedly told that washing their hands is “the most important measure” they can take to protect their patients from infections. Most marketers are shocked to learn that studies find less than half of doctors wash their hands between patients. Yes, you read that correctly.

If the extensive training doctors receive is not enough to get them to wash their hands, why would a poster, or a cheery TV spot, be enough to motivate Australians to maintain similar types of behaviours?

Using evidence to shape campaigns

Prior to becoming a behavioural science researcher at Monash, I worked as a communication strategist for WE Communications, and often heard the term ‘evidence-based.’ I admit to using the term, and now realise I did not fully understand the meaning.

Returning to the example of doctors, the World Health Organisation was alarmed to learn about the low rates of hand washing. Multiple studies have investigated why doctors were not practicing good hygiene, and the findings have been used to develop and test different approaches to boost hand washing, in real-world settings, using randomised, controlled, methods (the same approach used to test a drug). Peer reviewed studies found it is possible to increase hand washing, in some cases above 80%, using a combination of approaches that included advertising and education.

Similar studies have been conducted on a range of other topics which may be useful to agencies planning a pandemic campaign, including studies examining how to encourage the adoption of health-related mobile phone apps, why using celebrities to convey health messages is effective, and how to increase compliance with government orders.

The findings from these studies are what provide the ‘evidence-base’ that agencies and clients need to begin using to shape campaigns. I am not suggesting dry science should replace creative talent, but rather, this largely untapped resource needs to be given equal importance to gut instincts and professional experience.

I also believe, in the tight economy after the pandemic, creatives can gain a powerful competitive edge if they learn how to integrate scientific evidence and data into their campaigns.

Where to start

If you’re looking for advice and direction around how to find evidence that you can use to shape your pandemic campaigns, the Roadmap to Recovery report (p. 174), written by Australia’s leading academics, contains a useful overview, including links to many psychology and behavioural science resources. I also find Google Scholar is a great, free place to start your searches, and often links to papers you can access without an expensive journal subscription.

If you have questions, or need advice, reach out: erik.denison@monash.edu.

Erik Denison is a researcher with Monash University’s Behavioural Science Research Laboratory, where he is nearing the end of a PhD. He previously worked at WE Communications managing the health and life sciences practice


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