We have to have a COVID ad

There is one thing almost everybody commenting about Australia’s poor vaccine roll out agrees with – the need for an advertising campaign.

There is less agreement on what sort of ad and how it fits into any broader social marketing campaign. Ads without the benefit of being part of a wider campaign combining best practice social marketing principles, behavioural disciplines and government initiatives just make ad agencies, research companies and media proprietors richer.

The most common cry in crises is for another Grim Reaper campaign and the ad man responsible for that, Siimon Reynolds, weighed in with an op ed talking about it. What is widely known about the AIDS campaign, at least among health professionals, is that the Grim Reaper ads, along with the film Basic Instinct, frightened the hell out of heterosexual males rather than inspiring action in the most at risk communities.

In contrast the Canadian Let’s Talk campaign was very effective. That campaign came out of a focus group which degenerated into a barney been an older veteran straight man and a young gay man. The dispute ended when a third person said: Hey – let’s talk.

Everybody calmed down and the creatives realized they had a great concept – let’s not get angry or scared but instead talk about what we need to do to deal with this problem.

While people keep talking about the Grim Reaper ads what is little known is that real progress on AIDS awareness and the need for specific actions wasn’t made until a variety of campaigns developed – according to good social marketing principles – materials and initiatives in conjunction with at risk communities.

These campaigns involved very explicit advice on practices which exposed people to AIDS risks – advice that few politicians of the time would have been brave enough to articulate.

Those politicians who did know about the practices were deep in the closet and silent. There were probably as many gay (LBQT+ in today’s terminology) people in Parliaments as there are now but back then coming out of the closet would have ended their careers.

The Canadian Let’s Talk ads don’t get talked about so much because they don’t seem dramatic enough given the size of the problem but they led relatively seamlessly into the more targeted messages, channels and activities.

Most anti-drug and alcohol campaigns targeting youth suffer from the same failing. In essence they say drugs or alcohol are bad for you, which makes politicians feel they are doing the right thing, but which have little impact. A famous Howard era campaign showed young people at a party behaving stupidly, lurching around and vomiting.

When post campaign research was done – pre-campaign research is often useless because politicians know what they want and don’t know what they should want – it found that a common reaction among the demographics targeted was the wish to attend similar parties.

Not that scare campaigns are always ineffective. The 1970s Victorian road safety campaigns are one example but people tend to forget the impetus and the context.

The real inspiration sprang from a Melbourne Sun News-Pictorial 1970 road safety campaign when it was under the editorship of Harry Gordon. The Declare War on 1034 campaign (the l034 being the year before’s road toll).

Back in those days The Sun had an enormous circulation and serious impact. It was quickly picked up by other media and the State Government and Victorian Parliament responded with not only support but also serious policy reforms.

The Transport Accident Commission picked up the campaign and for decades ran a series of campaigns – initially scare campaigns about being killed in accidents and then morphing into ads about accident injuries. The latter was influenced by a cruel reality – as an accident insurer TAC faced much higher costs from people who had long term injuries than from the dead – although as the campaigns ranged over many road toll issues it always had a tactical emphasis on specific problems.

Today TAC still advertises about road safety but it has also pioneered a series of initiatives – starting with the need for seat belt wearing and tackling drink driving and shifting to include research and implementation on how to make roads and highways safer.

In that respect it was a forerunner of the detailed policy and targeting work undertaken on AIDS after the initial fire and brimstone from some quarters and the Grim Reaper campaign. It was this sort of work which made the US’ Dr Fauci famous, respected and even revered in some quarters.

So far in Australia we have seen a mix of COVID advertising – exhortatory, informational and now smiling faces displaying band aids on their arms with the call to Arm ourselves.

After some thought one realizes this is a reference to arming yourself with protection rather than a band aid but effective advertising ought not rely on you thinking about it for a while – it’s role is as a call to action.

Given the Morrison Government’s obsession with all things military it is hard to avoid the thought that this was not yet another nod to the militarization of our disaster responses made necessary by the way successive governments have systematically destroyed public sector expertise and capability.

Although it is also symbolic of Morrison Government approaches to most problems – stick a marketing band aid on them.

It is, though, also a reminder that if early AIDs campaign had depicted the need for condoms they would have been more effective than they were – but sadly that sort of message was confined to club lavatories and places frequented by the most vulnerable only after governments got smarter about targeting.

It is also a reminder that if the Department of Health had just some of the social marketing campaign expertise for which it was once renowned internationally public education about COVID and vaccination would have been rapid and effective.

Also, if there had been Health Ministers like Nicola Roxon or Michael Wooldridge, rather than Greg Hunt, they would have immediately  understood and supported what needed to be done.