‘Practice social distancing’ is terrible messaging; the government needs to communicate better

We learnt how to stop infection and change behaviour 30 years ago, Deborah Soden argues. And the advertising and comms messages learnt during the AIDS crisis need to be applied by the government now to COVID-19.

‘Practice social distancing’? That’s message distancing. Now isn’t the time to foist vague new phrases on a population either too fearful to take it in, too confused to know what to do, or too full of bravado to care.

We know how to communicate clearly and effectively to stop a deadly chain of infection. We did it 30-something years ago.

When AIDS was rife in the 1980s, the government’s first awareness campaign was the 1987 Grim Reaper ads. It got attention, but didn’t change behaviour. It scared the bejeezus out of people – but didn’t tell them what they could do about it. There was no safe sex message, just fear creation.

What worked was the follow up ‘Beds’ campaign: ‘How many partners has your partner had?’ and ‘Next time you go to bed with someone, ask yourself: How many people are you really going to bed with?’.

That rammed home the implications of the chain of infection in graphic fashion. Shot by film director Ray Lawrence, the TVC pulled back from showing two people in one bed to 800 people in 400 beds. It made it everyone’s problem, not just the gay community’s. We needed to pull together (no pun intended) to address it.

We got clear safe sex messages about what to do: ‘If it’s not on, it’s not on’ and ‘Cover yourself from AIDS’ among them.

Clear messages reached specific audiences, from TVCs to posters on the back of toilet doors in bars.

It had its critics, but it worked. Behaviour changed. Condom sales went up. Infection rates went down.

It helped stop the chain of infection that was killing people.

In today’s COVID-19 crisis, we understand washing our hands for as long as it takes to sing happy birthday. That made it clear, understandable and actionable.

Now we need clear, engaging messages to make ‘practice social distancing’ meaningful too, not vague requests and lectures.

My kids’ primary school once tried to get students to practice restorative justice by telling them to ‘practice restorative justice’. Yup, that’s what they said. To five-to-12 year olds. Parents were baffled too. Only the teachers who had done a two-day workshop knew what the heck it meant.

The restorative justice process itself was okay. Calling it that was the ineffective bit.

Likewise, the problem with ‘practicing social distancing’ isn’t the process. It’s the language.

Just because the pandemic is extremely serious doesn’t mean we can’t be clever. Clever and clear aren’t mutually exclusive. Clever and clear will get attention – and results.

Get our attention with a better line than ‘practice social distancing’ and then make it clear what we need to do during this ‘gap year’ we’re all on.

We might have a shortage of toilet paper, but we don’t have a shortage of clever people who can get a more effective message out to change behaviour. To draw on another time honoured slogan, ‘It’s Time’. Because that’s another thing we don’t have much of.

And for those still lining up for a takeaway coffee? Try the ‘Gapaccino’.

Deborah Soden is a Sydney-based writer


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