It will take more than an ad to change vaccination behaviour

PLAN: Vaccination ads should be part of a carefully executed, strategic communication campaign. Picture: Shutterstock
PLAN: Vaccination ads should be part of a carefully executed, strategic communication campaign. Picture: Shutterstock

Australia has a problem. For almost 16 months, we have been virtually cut off from the rest of the world, becoming a de facto hermit kingdom.

As citizens in other countries start moving around more freely, it doesn't look like our situation is going to change any time soon.

At the core of this dilemma lies Australia's vaccination rollout, which by now has attracted attention around the globe.

Australia has essentially gone from one of the world's success stories in its fight against COVID-19, to one of the worst performers in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development.

One of the key challenges on respective governments' minds is uptake - or rather vaccination hesitancy.

If you enjoy life in our self-imposed and arguably very comfortable, global exile with limited to no community-spread, then there is apparently no urgency to get vaccinated.

Add to this continuously changing rollout plans, conflicts between state-based and federal advice, vanishing objectives and frequent changes to vaccine availability and age group suitability; it is no surprise that the average Australian is somewhat confused.

The solution? Apparently, it's simple: we need an ad! The UK and US have enlisted celebrities, Singapore has a catchy jingle and New Zealand showcases the unique Kiwi humour that most of us are familiar with from Air New Zealand's safety announcements.

So how can we possibly outdo them? Apparently, it's by introducing not one, but two - stylistically very different - advertising campaigns simultaneously.

The new ads signal a shift away from the almost exclusive focus of former Deputy Chief Medical Officer Dr Nick Coatsworth, supported by a series of animated videos in hues of blue and green.

The more graphic ad execution has attracted its fair amount of criticism, primarily because vaccines remain a scarce commodity, not yet available to the apparent target audience of under 40s, which the actor appears to represent.

One benefit of the nationwide Arm Yourself campaign is that the featured arms are more culturally inclusive than anything we have seen so far, thereby somewhat reflecting the multicultural nature of Australian society.

However, the new ads may be less "white", but they nevertheless continue a commitment to blandness.

Celebrities, local slang or cultural references: what other countries' campaigns have in common is that they are funny, engaging, uplifting and full of hope.

They encourage audiences to share content with friends and family, thereby allowing them to become part of a nationwide movement beyond pandemic restrictions.

Furthermore, they contain catchy references that have the potential to be increasingly embedded in everyday conversations.

On the contrary: Australia's COVID-19 ads do not even contain a campaign hashtag, effectively positioning the Health Department and strategically identified representatives as the sole custodians of pandemic related knowledge.

As other countries look forward to a life beyond lockdowns, the federal government is telling Australians to gear up for a war against COVID-19.

However, conversations about vaccines do not exclusively take place on Health Department websites or Facebook groups - they happen in the community, in the workplace, at the supermarket checkout or your local gym.

Indeed, the key weakness of Australia's vaccination campaigns is that they have focused exclusively on advertising.

Sure, a well-executed ad can be engaging and extremely sharable.

However, an ad in isolation is not going to change behaviour.

Like any creative video, ads are a tool and should be part of a carefully executed, strategic communication campaign.

If the audience is not listening, if multicultural groups feel underrepresented, if vaccination sceptics fail to visit sanctioned government resources or prefer streaming services to traditional media, then we have effectively created a Health Department echo chamber.

It's time that we take the vaccination campaign to where the important conversations happen: the community.

Three years ago, the Health Department burned its fingers when enlisting social media influencers in the Girls Make Your Move campaign, resulting in a federal government ban on the use of influencers.

However, when it comes to our health and Australia's way out of the pandemic, all of us have the potential to become influencers in our own right.

As trust in governments and politicians declines, Australians rely on peers, family, friends and community leaders for advice and guidance.

A global pandemic requires a nationwide response that includes all facets of our multicultural society.

It is time to move beyond the obsession to find the "perfect" advertisement that compels Australians to get vaccinated, to an integrated communication campaign that shifts the power from authorities to communities and empowers everyday Australians to collectively shape our future.

Katharina Wolf is Associate Professor at the School of Management and Marketing at Curtin University.

This story It will take more than an ad to change vaccination behaviour first appeared on The Canberra Times.