Shock tactic COVID ad isn’t accurate but ads aren’t about truth, they’re about motivation – Sydney Morning Herald

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If you’ve seen or read about the Sydney shock tactic ad in The Sydney Morning Herald, then the reality is you probably aren’t the target audience for it. That campaign is speaking to an audience that in the advertising industry we’d call “complacents” – that is, people who don’t follow any news channels, don’t consider COVID-19 much of a threat, and even when it’s in the community, have a “she’ll be right” mentality about potentially catching it and sharing it with their friends and family.
Going down the messaging strategies that might work for you or me about community protection won’t cut through. Instead, it needs to go for a base human value – physical comfort, and our drive to protect it.
The government’s confronting COVID ad is trying to get to populations traditional media doesn’t reach.
And saying “COVID is painful and you won’t like it” might be what it takes for people who aren’t taking this health crisis seriously to do so.
The ad has been fairly criticised because some executional elements are not factually accurate, but ultimately, persuasive advertising isn’t about showing the truth, it’s about being selective in the truth you show and dramatising that to get people to do what they wouldn’t before.
Released at the same time as the shock tactic ad, the Arm Yourself campaign feels exactly like what we’d expect from a federal government healthcare campaign. I know people are wistful for some of the more comedic or emotionally charged ads from overseas to run here – but ultimately the bureaucracy of federal advertising campaigns, our national mindset and the public backlash that every federal ad campaign garners means we’ll never have anything astoundingly creative. Ever.
The messaging is interesting, however, because it’s made clear that the federal government is putting the onus on us – the population of Australia – to fight COVID, not on them.
But it’s the scare ad that is garnering the most attention. And while it may finally get people to take things seriously, it also has some big risks: the worst side effect of this pandemic is hysteria – we’ve seen how that plays out with punch ups in supermarkets over toilet paper.
In Sydney, there are GP practices where it’s impossible to get any vaccine (like with my GP). Doctors have advised people in my circle to “wait for Pfizer as it’s more effective”. The most dangerous thing to do is advertise a product you don’t have stock for, because it creates mass demand. And when people can’t get what they want, they get angry and abusive, or resort to backdoor methods and lying to access it. The cultural obsession with Pfizer could mean it will get harder for essential workers to get vaccinated in a timely manner, while causing further conflict and anxiety in the community that threatens everyone’s safety.
Karen Ferry is a creative director and writer who has worked in Sydney’s advertising industry for 15 years. She is a panellist on ABC TV’s Gruen.
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