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Moving the needle: how persuasive creativity can combat vaccine hesitancy


By Amit Bapna, Editor-at-large

October 19, 2021 | 10 min read

The pandemic is a global issue, but communication around public health messaging needs to take on a localized approach, as The Drum explores as part of our Globalization Deep Dive.


Vaccine hesitancy and the task for creativity

In the last 18 months, two of the most pushed out narratives have been around ‘masks’ and ‘vaccination’. While mask has become a must-have, an easy habit change, the vaccination journey has been much more complex in various parts of the globe. Factors such as availability as well as the efficiency with which governments have run vaccination programs have had a major impact on the speed at which different cities and countries get vaccinated.

After some sporadic supplies, most countries have now managed to ramp up the speed and efficacy of the drive. The first round has been about vaccinating the ones who were already convinced. The challenge now is to work on convincing the next cohort, the non-believers across the globe.

Recently, the retiring head of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) confessed that the level of resistance many Americans are showing towards the Covid-19 vaccine was under-estimated. There have been reports around a large number of vaccine doses being wasted in the US, with a chief reason being the hesitancy of the remaining population. It becomes even more bizarre as many countries continue to grapple with vaccine shortages.

Thailand has also been caught amid the lack of willingness to take the vaccine, a trend that has been catching on even among the youth, as per reports. According to a recent YouGov poll, the number of Thais willing to get vaccinated dropped from 83% in January to 72% in July. Social media has thrown up many reasons for this, ranging from concerns around vaccine’s safety and effectiveness to possible side effects, all complicated by misinformation and various half-baked theories. Australia is also battling hesitancy, which is posing a big challenge to getting the country vaccinated fast enough.

The Indian Government recently launched a Covid-19 vaccination anthem, produced by the famous singer and musician Kailash Kher, which is aimed at tackling hesitancy among the unvaccinated population. In India, the vaccine drive also went through initial phases of low supply and high demand, with ensuing confusion until it settled due to better supplies and availability. As per the reported figures, about 70% of the population have had at least one dose and about 30% of the population have had two. The task in India is also around convincing those on the cusp of doubt and apprehension to take the jab.

As proven with vaccination outcomes, the pandemic now is owned by the unvaccinated. Points out Prithviraj Sengupta, planning director for Greater China at McCann Health Shanghai: “There are still myths, misconceptions and, more so, a fear of more damage than good with these vaccines, and in this scenario creativity needs to instil a sense of larger responsibility for people.”

An important question being asked is around the power of persuasion that advertising holds and putting it to adequate use in convincing non-believers, as that is where the needle is stuck now in many countries. This is the time when the power of marketing can be deployed well in breaking down the fear and inhibitions of many people around the vaccine, its efficacy and its side effects.

As Susan Josi, managing director for the SEA and ME region at Havas Health & You, points out: “Rather than viewing vaccination through the lens of sociology, it is time to treat it as a complicated marketing problem and get the stakeholders to wield a different power of persuasion than before.”

No easy answers here for it is a very complex topic and a global challenge. Different markets have different complexities to tackle on the theme of vaccine hesitancy, even though many factors are common to most vaccine-hesitant people. The solution could well lay in understanding and harnessing the power of storytelling, deploying the tools of persuasive marketing.

Vaccine hesitancy: a complex tale of many layers

Unlike pushing the usage of a newly launched soap or a pack of cookies, the task around vaccination is much more nuanced. It is a belief-behavior change that requires much more fundamental issues to be addressed.

Explains Josi of Havas Health & You: “In most countries where this is a chronic issue, there is a strong dominant 20-30% who have remained steadfast in not getting vaccinated and their beliefs are beyond science and data.”

To a large extent, it looks like a civil war sometimes with belief systems, socio-cultural realities and politics of the land all playing their part in obfuscating the already intricate issue. Says Josi: “It is almost like fighting against some major headwinds and the benefit is mostly invisible. There’s a low barrier for the consumer – it’s just a shot – but it’s also a high barrier because of the politics.”

A lot of apprehensions around corona vaccines the world over were not unfounded, feels Harshit Jain MD, founder and global chief exec of programmatic phyician marketing platform Doceree, given fear around trials and quick vaccine development. The speed of the pandemic took everyone by surprise – no one was prepared for a calamity of this size.

As per Sengupta of McCann Health Shanghai, the situation requires a revisiting of the right markers for evaluation and communicating them well. While vaccination is the way to offer long-term protection, he says that in such emergencies no vaccine will have the adequate time to prove itself through data.

Thus the task for creativity, he says, is to “reset the human mind to focus on short term outcomes and reasonable safety as primary points for consideration since one cannot evaluate an emergency vaccine against the age old-tested vaccines like earlier”.

Behavioral change and power of advertising

The pandemic was probably advertising’s toughest test and for a very odd reason. “Even though the communication was expected to change mass behavior, advertising was the last thing people were tuning in to amid all the chaos and bad news”, points out Raghu Bhat, co-founder, Scarecrow M&C Saatchi.

Instead, fake news was controlling the narrative, undermining trust in the vaccine’s efficacy. At a global level, there was a trust deficit when it came to corporate agendas and government agencies. Adds Bhat, advertising couldn’t get the captive audience it has been used to. Behavior change is hard when the audience can’t hear what you are saying. Or don’t want to hear.

A unique situation... even for advertising

The vaccine situation had its unique facets. Typically, an advertising campaign starts after the distribution is in place. In the case of vaccines, however, supply was very erratic across geographies and time. Vaccines became available in India, for example, at a comparatively late date – and even then demand outstripped supply.

Sumanto Chattopadhyay, the chairman and chief creative officer of 82.5 Communications, says: “In such a scenario, it did not make sense to encourage people to go for the jab and, unsurprisingly, these factors came together to prompt advertising to focus on the importance of masks rather than vaccines.”

While there were fragmented efforts by certain corporates, ad agencies and individuals, there was no single pan-India integrated vaccine campaign. One of the memorable campaigns was by Facebook in India to tackle the hesitancy in a six-minute film in which a young man called Rizwan tries to persuade an elderly lady to get vaccinated. The heart-warming film, made by Taproot Dentsu, makes the point well.

Josi explains: “The highly emotive story of the young man who has taken time off from work to get people to overcome vaccine hesitancy and drive them to recieve the jab gets three messages across: that of secular India, the need for vaccinations, as well as Facebook’s USP of the power of connections.”

Time to unlock the power of communication

While the first phase of vaccination in most countries has worked without much need for persuasion, it is now that the next bunch of non-believers, skeptics and cynics will need hand-holding and convincing. What worked for the first 60-70% of people will not work for the rest, and all the science and celebrity-led persuasion approaches are falling on deaf ears – especially when one sees the cohort of young people and people from rural backgrounds, shares Josi.

Chattopadhyay agrees, saying “there is a lot more room for communication to help overcome vaccine hesitancy”, but also that he hopes that brands come forward and back this kind of messaging for it to see the light of day. Dispelling vaccine hesitancy will have a positive rub-off on brands as well.

The best that advertising can do against the current backdrop, as per Farrokh Madon, the chief creative officer of Singapore-based independent agency Pirate, is to “create communication that judiciously blends facts and tugs on human emotions also experienced by vaccine cynics”.

Global learnings

Globally, there have been cases where vaccination drives have worked well. Chile, for example, is a big success story having vaccinated 88% of its population. Bhat says: “Apart from a sound healthcare infrastructure, a key factor that worked well in Chile was the trust people have in the immunization program that is nearly 100 years old, having combated smallpox earlier.” This also reiterates the fact that when there is high trust, the cost of user acquisition is low, and that trust needs to be earned through actions over time, he adds. And in that task, no ad campaign can substitute.

Interestingly, we live in a world where impact is seen on a real-time basis, and it can work both ways. Points out Doceree’s Jain: “Advertising by various governments had been vociferous to build public trust towards Covid vaccines, and while governments across the globe were working hard to contain the fear, the news about any adverse impacts of the vaccines also spread equally fast.”

The biggest enemy of vaccine positivity is misinformation, says Madon, and the best way to curb this surging tide of negativity is through social media platforms putting in stricter controls to stop fake news from spreading.

As the world grapples to recover in the aftermath of a brutal second wave of Covid-19 and nations and economies are trying to bounce back, most experts believe that getting vaccinated is the only succor from this virus. It is time then for the communication industry to get down to some serious business, reframe the problem, rewire the decision-making process with a greater pulse and insight and come up with new, creative ways to move the proverbial needle.

For more on how technology and trends are bringing the world together, check out The Drum’s Globalization Deep Dive.

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