Covid-19 is a Chinese hoax... There’s a microchip in the vaccine... You can stop it with a hot bath... Just a few of the conspiracies that seem to have spread as fast as the virus, and you’ll have no doubt heard more.
As the pandemic pushes people to extremes and psychological states peak, there was always bound to be skepticism and questioning of what we’re told. Throw into the mix the fact we’ve been stuck indoors, increasingly turning to social media, and it’s no wonder misinformation has been such an issue.
“Misinformation is not a new phenomenon, but rarely has it had such a direct and calculable impact on human life, which is why ad campaigns are so important,“ insists Jared Shurin, head of planning M&C Saatchi’s Social Impact Practice.
As misinformation spreads like wildfire, it has taken a mighty effort from government bodies, NGOs, health organizations and more to extinguish the flames.
Here, we take a look at some of the different approaches from around the world and consider the methods used in campaigns aimed at dispelling myths about Covid and vaccines.
A new frontier in international relations, the pandemic has affected nearly every country in the world and collectively, the World Health Organization (WHO), the United Nations (UN), Unicef, UNDP, Unesco, Unaids, ITU, UN Global Pulse and IFRC have worked together on combating misinformation across the globe.
“One of the main tasks is to create a pool of advocates who are recognized as the ’voice of authority’. People generally know which sources to trust in their immediate circle,“ explains Susan Josi, managing partner at Havas Life Sorento.
“This should be leveraged across all media channels to cascade authentic information as and when needed,“ she insists. “Some of the global authorities, like WHO and Unicef, have been sharing credible, evidence-based information lucidly written for consumers.“
Coining the phrase ’infodemic’ (“an overabundance of information and the rapid spread of misleading or fabricated news, images and videos“) through its comms, the WHO has been working to ’flatten the curve’ using infographics.
Making the issue more digestible, the diagrams articulately demonstrate how disinformation is passed and how to make sure you don’t get swallowed up in it. “Communication formats can be made as interesting as possible and straddle across infographics, snackable videos, podcasts in all languages so that every consumer has an authentic source to refer to,“ says Josi.
“Matching message and audience is crucial,“ insists Claire Gillis, chief exec of VMLY&Rx. “Think local, act local. That means understanding local contexts, communities and cultures. If you don’t have that to begin with, your message won’t get through.“
Back in March, the UN soon recognized that it was nigh on impossible to produce the masses of localized communication materials needed to halt Covid-19 on its own.
So it decided to issue an open brief to the creative community, asking them to produce eye-catching PSAs to translate messages into something easy-to-understand. In doing so, it received 17,000 entries from 143 countries and in 20 different languages, with help from Talenthouse which worked on the portal.
For the ’myth busting’ category, it received thousands of entries, including ’Spread the Truth’ – a project created by Sebãstiao Assis, who created fake news to dispel myths about the pandemic.
With Covid vaccines now being rolled out, addressing vaccine hesitancy across the world is crucial. And so a collaboration between the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, the Gavi Vaccine Alliance and the UN Verified Initiative saw the creation of #TeamHalo, where scientists all over the world use their social channels to promote safe and effective use of vaccines.
Representing connected science from around the globe, the campaign “crowdsources experts to bring local, regional and cultural nuance to the initiative,“ explains Gillis. “It’s all about opening up engagement and answering the difficult questions using Twitter, TikTok and Instagram to give anyone who wants it direct access to global scientist, with the simple premise: ask a Covid-19 vaccine expert anything.“
Michelle Hillman, chief campaign development officer at The Ad Council, says that since distrust about Covid-19 vaccination is the main driver of hesitancy, who the message comes from can be just as important as what the message entails. “That’s leveraging trusted messengers that resonate, including doctors, nurses, pharmacists, national medical experts, faith-based and community influencers, athletes, musicians, actors, politicians, digital content creators...“
From ’Covid is a Chinese hoax’ allegations to November’s presidential elections, 2020 proved fertile ground for viral misinformation. From the moment the deadly virus started to spread, people were making wild claims – including that the government introduced it in 2018, that somehow Bill Gates is responsible and that it’s a bioweapon engineered by the Chinese to wage war on America.
“It’s one of the biggest communications and logistics tasks in human history,“ says Hannes Ciatti, founder and chief creative officer of Alto who is working on a vaccine campaign for Bronx-based Montefiore Einstein Hospital. “It is so vital to start with good research and identify the most harmful misinformation and combat it head-on with the most powerful and approachable truths.“
During this time, social media platforms have come under increased scrutiny for their role in spreading misinformation. Back in July, off the back of criticism, Facebook launched a campaign to help its users spot fake news. By December it started sending notifications directly to users who liked, shared or commented on Covid-19 posts. To combat vaccine myths, last month it announced it would remove posts with false claims about all vaccines.
Finding real purpose amid the pandemic, the Ad Council has played a critical role in guiding Americans. Its ongoing Covid-19 response has included a mental health campaign, a PSA to thank essential workers and a film drawing attention to the antisocial and racist treatment of members of the Asian and Pacific Islander community.
“Throughout our nearly eight decades of experience with public service messaging, we have seen the immense power of advertising and media to drive meaningful attitude and behavior change,“ says Hillman of the Ad Council’s vaccine efforts.
Describing it as the organization’s “largest communications effort yet”, Hillman says it has been working with brands including Facebook, General Motors and Walmart on a Covid-19 vaccine education initiative, alongside healthcare bodies such as the American Medical Association and the American Heart Association. The initiative has raised $52m to date.
“We know from our research that trust is at the root of hesitancy. We needed to identify different ways to reach our audiences with education and information that will resonate and help build trust. But a one-size-fits-all message will not suffice, and that will vary by community. There is deep-seated distrust among communities of color, so we needed to make sure we address that with relevant content and information.“
’It’s Up To You’ takes an empathetic approach and reaffirms for consumers that it’s understandable to have questions about the vaccines. “We’re aiming to inspire people to get informed about the vaccines, as a way to get back to the people and moments we miss and love from before the pandemic,“ explains Hillman
Back in January, Pfizer and BioNtech, alongside a US healthcare alliance, decided to step away from your typical science-heavy ad to inspire vaccine confidence. So it gave Mischief @ No Fixed Address the opportunity to try something a little different.
A world away from science books, the ads focused on all the things we took for granted that the pandemic took away, like hugging your best friends or being with the ones you love. “Wouldn’t it be nice to have that all back? Well, science has made that possible,” explains Greg Hahn, the agency’s co-founder and chief creative officer.
“The campaign is all found footage. The idea was not to do something that felt inauthentic or overly produced. We wanted it to feel like this is you, your family, your neighbors, real people – we’ve all seen these videos on people’s personal social networks. We wanted something for people to relate to.”
In the UK, just like the States, misinformation has thrived, with anti-vaxxers haranguing NHS workers outside St Thomas’ Hospital in London and dozens of 5G cell towers attacked by those who believe they are somehow linked to the spread of the virus.
One body tackling the issue is the international non-profit Center for Countering Digital Hate, which has been working with the likes of Sadiq Khan, Adam Kay and MP Oliver Dowden on a #DontSpreadTheVirus campaign.
While the fact 10 million people in England have been vaccinated is a cause for celebration, sadly, vaccine misinformation continues to get in the way of progress.
And so Lord Ara Darzi, who leads the Imperial React Covid Surveillance Study Group, enlisted the help of two old friends, Sir Elton John and Sir Michael Caine, using humour to help them get the message across.
“Everything roots back to insight,“ says Gillis. “Humour or hard-hitting? Both can be used to achieve what’s required at different times of the news cycle, but message and tone must always be appropriate to the audience, context and culture.“
However, the ad did face some criticism. Tom Laranjo, managing director at behavioral planning agency Total Media, argued that it failed to address the concerns of Black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) communities because it failed to acknowledge the highly complex and individual issues many vaccine hesitants have.
Like the US, while overall Covid-19 vaccine acceptance in the UK is pretty high (85% of adults are very likely to get the jab), almost 10 million people are opposed, and those numbers are heavily skewed towards BAME communities.
At 9.56pm on Thursday 18 February, ITV, Channel 4, Channel 5, UKTV and Sky all took a simultaneous break from their programming to deliver an urgent message to BAME groups. #TaketheVaccine featured famous faces from these communities who addressed various myths around the vaccine head-on.
“It’s not to take anything away from the guidance and voice of doctors, but we’re offering an alternative,“ claims Samir Ahmeh, managing director at Media Hive. “Celebrities can also be influential – they have a platform to spread the word. They also have lived experience. They are the people in the videos, they’ve had the experience. There’s a lot of taboo subjects that don’t get spoken about in households or between families, for cultural reasons. We hope it will blow the doors open for further conversations.“
While MullenLowe has been working on Covid campaigns through the pandemic for the UK government, its executive partner Tom Knox says the team will soon begin work on a vaccine campaign. “The vaccine program has been going brilliantly. But we’re getting now into the time when the cohorts are getting really big, and so inevitably the proportion who are hesitant goes up.
“So there will be a bit more of a role for comms that drive people because so far it’s been mainly influencer partnerships, as in the over-80 cohort the uptake has been over 90%. But as we go younger, it gets tougher.“
As the country with the highest vaccine rollout rate, Israel has got a lot of things right. However, after surging ahead in the race to vaccinate its population against the coronavirus, Israel is now blaming online misinformation for a sudden slowdown in the campaign.
It is therefore stepping up efforts to combat disinformation, with anti-vax sentiment threatening the country’s lead. Beyond setting up a team to fight fake news on vaccines, Israel’s Health Ministry has launched a major online campaign.
It has also enlisted dozens of Israeli social media influencers to help it promote immunization alongside the campaign. Released on Valentine’s Day, it included one influencer presenting his girlfriend with a small box presumed to contain an engagement ring. “Will you get vaccinated with me?“ he asks instead as she opens the box to find a vaccine vial.
While it has coped well with the pandemic this far, Australia has not been immune to misinformation, with its federal government silently setting up a ’myth-busting unit’ to address the spread of false information.
Despite being slower to start its vaccine rollout, at the end of last month, in a bid to boost vaccine confidence down under, the Australian government introduced the first phase of its $24m advertising vaccine campaign.
Split into three phases, the first is designed to reassure people that Covid-19 vaccines have been put through a world-leading independent approvals process, ensuring both their safety and efficacy. The second phase will provide rollout information, while the third will inform people how and where to get vaccinated.
“It is more important to be factual and evidence-based to get the necessary trust on the messaging instead of couching information and being superficial in communication,“ insists Josi at Havas Life Sorento. “The fact that these are life-saving vaccines or medicines, the authenticity of claims should be of the highest order.“
Australia’s campaign will be fronted by senior health professionals to inspire confidence, worded in a way to help answer any questions people may have.