Assessing the effectiveness of public health ads

Public health advertising that incites fear is often less effective than messaging that provides clear steps about staying healthy and saving lives, according to experts.

In a January 19, 2021 Kaiser Health News article, several experts discussed possible approaches for campaigns aimed at curbing the coronavirus pandemic by promoting behavior such as wearing masks, not gathering in large groups, and getting vaccinated.

Public health ads can backfire if they provoke “defensive responses,” several experts agreed. Ads that show diseased lungs to discourage smokers are one such example.

Jay Winsten, director of the Initiative on Communication Strategies for Public Health at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health—who spearheaded the U.S. designated-driver campaign to prevent drunk driving and who serves on the board of advisers of the Ad Council’s COVID-19 vaccine campaign—said that effective ads to combat the coronavirus should feature “well-known individuals who have high credibility within specific population groups that currently are hesitant about taking the vaccine.”

He cited the example of a series of videos by Mac Curran, a 34-year-old social media influencer, that feature Curran discussing his struggles with opioid addiction and the benefits of getting treatment. The videos are “really excellent because he comes across as genuine and well spoken,” said Winsten. “People remember stories more than they do someone simply lecturing at them.”

Read the Kaiser Health News article: Are Public Health Ads Worth the Price? Not if They’re All About Fear