Thursday 10 December 2020 5:12 am

Celebrity vaccine endorsement? Try behavioural science instead

Will Hanmer Lloyd is head of behavioural planning at the consultancy Behave

A Covid-19 vaccine has been approved, and the nation celebrated as the first shots were administered this week.

Now, the conversation around coronavirus has developed from how we can produce a cure to how we can successfully convince people to take it. 

While the vaccine is being heralded as the end of the pandemic, some people are more sceptical about taking it. In fact, a recent survey by the London Assembly Health Committee found that a quarter of Londoners either don’t want a vaccine or feel that they are unlikely to get one. 

Read more: Can my employer make me get a Covid-19 vaccine?

In response to scepticism, it has been reported that the NHS is looking to enlist “sensible” celebrities to help convince the public to get vaccinated. But is this really a smart idea?

While celebrities will undoubtedly create buzz and interest, they also risk distracting people from the government’s key messages. A celebrity’s own personal adherence to Covid-19 restrictions could end up deflecting from the story around the safety and effectiveness of the new vaccine, while some people might find it patronising for members of the “elite” to tell them what to do, entrenching anti-vax sentiment.

Besides, there are other ways of building a broader, more effective marketing campaign than enlisting celebrities. If the government wants to maximise vaccine take-up, behavioural science offers some important lessons.

First, the government should avoid any messaging that tells vaccine rejecters they are wrong or comes across as judgemental. When our strongest-held beliefs are confronted, we tend not to change our minds but to double down. This is known as the backfire effect, and is well documented. Indeed, if we feel judged we have a defence mechanism that drives us to search out information that confirms our original view.

This effect can be intensified by controlling language or overtly persuasive and repetitive messaging that can come across as pressure. So rather than top-down persuasion, the government should focus on creating empathetic but factually accurate resources that individuals can find and read in their own time. 

Alongside this, messaging should focus on showing (and celebrating) the high level of take-up. This will portray taking the vaccine as a positive social norm. People are more likely to do something if they believe others are doing it too. This a subtle form of persuasion that sidesteps directly confronting people, encouraging them indirectly.

This tactic will work most effectively at a community level. We are more likely to be influenced by seeing others in our own group doing something. This represents another danger of using celebrities, who are by definition not like us normal people. It is easier to disregard the actions of people who “are not like us” — much harder when it’s your colleagues, neighbours or friends.

The government should therefore empower local councils and communities to show how high take-up is in their area, enlisting churches, local papers and radio stations,and community leaders to talk about positive take-up, creating a powerful social norm. Local organisations are also better able to engage with harder to reach communities than a national campaign, and to deliver more culturally tailored and representative communication.  

Finally, one of the most important elements of take up will be ease. A study in 1965 of Yale students found that take-up of tetanus inoculations increased ninefold when students were given a map and specific instructions on where and how to get the jabs, in addition to a talk about the benefits. 

Just as important as a comms campaign of persuasion is a strategy to make it as easy as possible to get the vaccine: ensure people have clear instructions and directions, offer appointments out of normal office hours so they don’t have to take time off work, and provide details of where they can go to get assistance.

If the government wants to run a national campaign that incorporates these lessons, it could take inspiration from a recent drive to increase NHS blood donation. This used digital out-of-home advertising with localised data-led messaging to show people their local donor centre along with “its location, walking distance, the volume of first-time donors seen there in the past week, and the number booked to give blood that day”. The success of this campaign has undoubtedly saved lives.

In short, those planning the nationwide vaccine rollout must focus on a local ground-up approach that emphasises positive social norms over headline-grabbing celebrities.

Read more: Vaccine optimism spurs near-record equity inflows

Main image credit: Getty

City A.M.'s opinion pages are a place for thought-provoking views and debate. These views are not necessarily shared by City A.M.

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