Change, Communication, Health, Role of information

Where are the promised COVID-19 Public Health Education Ads? (PSAs)

Press release on WhiteHouse.gov website

Have you seen the television ad featuring celebrities encouraging you to social distance? What about the Facebook ad featuring prominent Republicans and Democrats encouraging mask use? Of course you haven’t seen them because six months into the COVID-19 pandemic, Public Service Announcements (PSAs) featuring a coordinated, comprehensive prevention message are still absent, despite being promised by the White House back in March. 

The US Government has a long history of recognizing the impact of communication on health. In 1962, Surgeon General Luther Terry organized the first federal conference on health communications to discuss how various techniques of communications could be used to make health information available to the public.

Extensive expertise in health communication exists, but we are not utilizing it effectively.

During the 20th century, health communication evolved into a distinct academic and research discipline. Health communication can be found in master’s and doctoral programs nationwide offering specialized training tying together scholarship from the diverse fields of social science, the humanities, education, law and marketing.

Health communication research has over time identified effective strategies for imparting complex health information in easily understandable ways taking into consideration factors such as literacy, the degree of audience reception and available dissemination channels. Strategic mass media tools exist in abundance from podcasts and radio to television and social media. The Centers for Diseases Control and Prevention (CDC) has long held strong public and private partnerships to get health messages out to a wide audience, such as with the nonprofit Ad Council and the Hollywood, Health, and Society Program at the University of Southern California Norman Lear Center which produces storylines for television and film studios that promote public health information. To get COVID-19 prevention strategies out to the public quickly doesn’t require reinventing the wheel. Academic expertise exists. Industry contacts exists. Yet, this deep field of knowledge is not being adequately tapped.

Other nations have moved far more quickly in educating their population about COVID-19 prevention—India, Nigeria, Great Britain, and Ireland, among others, all have homegrown PSAs. The World Health Organization has created a PSA featuring the actor Rowan Atkinson voicing a cartoon Mr. Bean character providing essential tips to protect people against Covid-19.

Effective COVID-19 prevention strategies exist and they can be summed up in a simple 3-point message:

  • Wash your hands
  • Wait 6 feet from others
  • Wear a mask

That’s it. There is no vaccine, but scientific research–even in the earliest days of the pandemic–has shown these three simple things can reduce the risk of virus transmission. It should be an easy message to provide the public, right?

There are no national PSAs featuring prominent celebrities or politicians.

Yet, the US been incomprehensibly slow to implement PSAs around these proven prevention strategies. On March 18, 2020, President Trump announced the nonprofit Ad Council was working in collaboration with the White House, CDC, HHS and major media networks to launch a series of PSAs to communicate accurate, critical and urgent COVID-19 messages to the American public.  What was the result? The partnership PSAs center around a central theme of  ‘We are all in this together’ under the #AloneTogether branding. Most ads are either text-based (unspoken words scrolled across a static color backdrop) or cartoon drawings. PSAs encouraging hand washing feature Sesame Street cartoon characters and WWE wrestlers. There are no national PSAs featuring prominent celebrities or politicians.

Mask use has not been encouraged in national PSAs.

For five months, the only ad at all encouraging mask use was one produced at the request of the State of New York as client and it thus addressed and targeted only New York residents. The first national television ad targeting a general audience to even mention mask use was not posted until July 21, 2020 and it mentions mask-use only in the context a text-list of recommendations, ie no spoken words.

The end result is clear: The full COVID-19 prevention message has not gotten out to the public at the level in which is can be actionable.

As social distancing and mask wearing—the two most effetive of the three COVID-19 prevention strategies-have become politicized, it is urgent that PSAs be developed featuring a diversity of people the public will trust and act upon their message—actors, musicians, athletes and especially politicians of both political parties. As our news sources have become siloed, so to have our sources of health information. Many people unwittingly obtain guidance from unreliable sources whose advice is not rooted in science or fact.

This is the very time in history when our historic cultivation of expertise in health communication can do the most good.

Life-saving information is a critical public good which should not be kept in the dark under a barrel. This is the very time in history when our historic cultivation of expertise in health communication can do the most good. Those leading our nation’s COVID-19 response must invest more effort in reaching out to all of our diverse citizens in every mass media method and not hold back the entirety of virus prevention educational information and communication expertise. Prevention strategies must be presented in multiple formats and blasted out to all corners of mass media. Until you are tired of seeing yet another ad on COVID-19 prevention, health communications hasn’t fully done the job.

Prevention strategies must be presented in multiple formats and blasted out to all corners of mass media.

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