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Experts tell City of Toronto to change messaging to influence COVID-19 rule-breakers

Click to play video 'Experts tell Toronto to change messaging to influence COVID-19 rule-breakers' Experts tell Toronto to change messaging to influence COVID-19 rule-breakers
WATCH ABOVE: After breaking its record for COVID-19 case counts on two consecutive days this week, some are calling on the City of Toronto to change-up its messaging in order to reach those who have tuned out of the daily warnings. Matthew Bingley reports – Dec 2, 2020

After breaking its record for COVID-19 case counts on two consecutive days this week, some are calling on Toronto to change up its messaging in order to reach those who have tuned out of the daily warnings.

Both Mayor John Tory and medical officer of health Dr. Eileen de Villa have been pleading with people to stick to themselves. On Tuesday the city recorded a record-high 727 cases.

Tory regularly points out that while the vast majority of people are following the rules, there are some who he said “just don’t get it.”

Read more: Auditor general highlights Ontario’s ‘confusing,’ indirect communications on COVID-19 in new report

This week, Toronto Public Health revealed the results of surveys of those infected with the coronavirus, which reported that one in five respondents admitted they had gone into someone else’s home or had someone in theirs during the period they acquired COVID-19.

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Toronto and its public health agency have been running ads for the duration of the pandemic that have primarily been fact-based and focused on public health guidelines. They have recently delved into a more humorous approach with the “Practice Safe 6ix” campaign.

But the ads have largely avoided tapping into emotion or the severity of the pandemic. Psychology professor Steve Joordans thinks that’s a mistake. While many are being rational and following public health advice, many aren’t and that requires a different approach.

Toronto Public Health’s advertising campaigns have been largely focused around information, which experts say only work for those acting rationally.
Toronto Public Health’s advertising campaigns have been largely focused around information, which experts say only work for those acting rationally. Toronto Public Health

“I think a lot of the people who are not following rules right now are being influenced by a different power and that power is emotion,” he said.

Joordans said the strongest display of the pull of people’s emotion was the crowds seen in airport travellers going home for American Thanksgiving.

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“They know the danger they may be bringing to their relatives and yet they so badly need, on an emotional level, that old world.”

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Something that brings the emotional consequences home while at the same time connecting the viewer with the right way of thinking would be a better method, he said. An advertisement with a real, personal story of someone affected by COVID-19 could be the way of doing that.

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Joordans points to emotional advertising used in campaigns to discourage distracted driving and said a similar ad could do a better job of reaching people who have checked out. Introducing someone who has lost someone to COVID-19 as a direct result of gathering in a group, who wishes they could turn back the clock, would be an effective way of changing behaviour through an emotional connection, he said.

“Try to get someone thinking at the beginning of that process, where that may take them,” said Joordans, “and hopefully convince them that they don’t want to go there.”

Click to play video 'Looking at widely praised coronavirus messages  from around the world' Looking at widely praised coronavirus messages from around the world
Looking at widely praised coronavirus messages from around the world – Dec 2, 2020

Advertising insider John Yorke agrees that the city’s approach has reached its limits when it comes to inspiring behavioural change.

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“It’s not done in a 15-second TikTok commercial and it’s not done an infographic, it’s done by emotionally connecting with the audience,” he said.

Yorke concedes that it’s a difficult story for the city to tell, especially when it’s competing with other levels of government. But in advertising, he said there is a simple message to convey: “What’s in it for me?”

“If what’s in it for me is keeping my uncle or aunt safe or my grandparents safe,” he said, “it’s an interesting story.”

Yorke said the SickKids ‘Champions’ campaign or even runs for various foundations have been able to effectively tap into those emotions by reminding people who they’re doing it for.

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When asked if the city would consider changing up its messaging, Tory said on Wednesday that it is consulting with advertising experts and is constantly looking at ways to adjust its approach. But Tory countered that despite decades of telling people not to drink and drive, people still do it.

“It’s frustrating,” said Tory. “We’re just going to have to keep at it and we will keep at it.”