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Heard immunity: time for the media to probe a little deeper

To my knowledge, there have been no TV interviews with advertising professionals querying the communications effectiveness of the government’s Covid-19 strategy, despite the fact that it’s clear – judging by case numbers and deaths – that a significant proportion of the population is immune to the messages they’ve heard. If communicating a simple message effectively is just a matter of standing in front of a lectern and repeating a three-part slogan day after day, why do advertising agencies bother with all their expensive visuals, voiceovers and music – and research – when selling products?

We found out early on in the pandemic (from charts presented by the experts) that statistically the USA had more cases than we had, here in the UK. This must have been a huge shock. Then it occurred to some of us that maybe that was because the USA has a somewhat bigger population than the UK. It was only a matter of six weeks or so before we began to see “cases per 100,000” population figures being quoted. This was reassuring. I thought I detected the first signs of some statistical expertise being brought to bear.

And, sure enough, the charts eventually became more detailed and informative. But nowhere is there any statistical information about the effectiveness of government communications. I’m sure that behind the scenes questions such as the following are being asked, as they would be by any ad. agency worth its salt:

  • in terms of percentage measures, what levels of unprompted awareness of key safety messages (Hands – Face – Space, for instance) are being achieved?; how do they vary by demographic – age group/region/income level/etc.? how many people are fully cognisant of the lockdown rules applicable to their area?;
  • what are people’s attitudes to different messages? how many would like to see more detailed information (and of what kind)?; how has credibility been affected by events such as ministers’ infringing the rules?; what proportion of people would be happy with a stricter lockdown – and again, how do these attitudes vary by demographic? does everyone understand concepts such as ‘bubble’ and ‘Tier 4’? which of the communicators perform best in terms of getting the messages across?
  • what do we know – statistically – about how the virus is passed on?; what do those who’ve recovered have to say about how they think they caught it (some may be wrong, but patterns should emerge)?; how should such information modulate the weight, nature and targeting of government messaging?

But it seems there is very little interest amongst the media in wanting to see a mathematical measure of any of this. For communicators, these measures are the equivalent, for scientists, of developing vaccines. They should be utilised to set objectives and provide a means of making decision-makers accountable. Research results almost invariably challenge assumptions. Changes in awareness and attitude levels drive public perceptions … and actions. Advertising agencies and their marketeer clients spend over £20 billion each year, and consequently many millions on detailed measurement of these and other parameters, using the data generated to make subtle, or sometimes radical, changes to their ad. campaigns for myriad products and services.

Advertisers see the value of such statistical research in sales and profits. To my knowledge, they rarely call in scientists or politicians to advise them on how to launch a new brand or create high awareness of their product’s benefits. Many, many decades of research, both published and proprietary, inform their decisions.

We see all too clearly what is happening to people’s bodies. But what is going on in their minds?

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