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Here’s why we need a PSA for the COVID-19 vaccine

Presidents Obama, G.W. Bush, and Bill Clinton smile and wave while on the first tee during the first round of the Presidents Cup at Liberty National Golf Club on September 28, 2017 in Jersey City, New Jersey. AP Photo by Shelley Lipton/Icon Sportswire

As COVID-19 vaccines begin making their way from science labs to doctors’ offices, three former U.S. presidents—Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama—have said they’re willing to get their shots on camera in order to encourage skeptical Americans to do the same. The move is “a good first step,” says psychology professor Lisa Feldman Barrett, but a broader, sustained public service campaign may be needed to get a critical mass of the United States’ diverse population on board with being vaccinated.

From left to right, law professor Aziza Ahmed, psychology professor Lisa Feldman, and Wendy Parmet, Matthews Distinguished University Professor of Law at Northeastern. Photos courtesy of Ahmed and by Matthew Modoono and Mary Knox Merrill/Northeastern University

“Leaders are missing the scope of what’s required here,” says Barrett, university distinguished professor of psychology at Northeastern. “The fact that three presidents who are on different sides of the political divide are standing together in a photograph, proclaiming dedication to being vaccinated together, is inspiring. But if we really want a program of vaccinations to work, we have to target all sectors of the population with a coordinated influencer campaign.”

Different messages, Barrett says, delivered by different people of power or prestige, will resonate with different segments of the population. While she found the presidents’ message heartwarming, those who are politically disaffected might have been unmoved, Barrett says.

A campaign that enlists influencers from a variety of media—YouTube stars, movie and music stars, politicians, physicians, and the like—is more likely to impact more people, she says.

Humans have evolved to copy one another, she explains in her new book, Seven and a Half Lessons About the Brain. Humans learn (in part) by observing social cues and mirroring each other. 

As a consequence, a single person doesn’t have to experience everything to learn the information needed to survive and thrive. They can just observe the concrete actions of other people and copy them as needed.

But, even with the support of celebrities and other influential people, creating a successful public service announcement campaign will still be a challenge, says Wendy Parmet, Matthews Distinguished University Professor of Law at Northeastern.

The most successful PSAs in recent decades—consider an anti-smoking campaign, or one for seat belt use—have taken time to take root.

“It takes time to change norms,” says Parmet, who directs the Center for Health Policy and Law at Northeastern. “Smoking didn’t go from being cool to being vilified over days, or weeks, or months; it took decades.”

And with COVID-19, a disease that’s claimed over 300,000 lives this year in the U.S. alone, there’s simply not time for a decades-long campaign, she says.

The COVID-19 pandemic is unprecedented in its scope and scale, but there is something of a parallel in the U.S. that could serve as an example for crafting a nationwide public service campaign—the AIDS epidemic, says law professor Aziza Ahmed.

The scare tactics used in early messaging about the HIV/AIDS crisis “weren’t really effective,” says Ahmed, who studies health law and human rights. “Fear-based ads led to rampant discrimination against the LGBTQ community.”

Instead, more effective ads reduced the potential for harm by providing concrete steps people could take, such as practicing safe sex, she says, and suggests taking the same approach to COVID-19 messaging.

Messages that encourage people to wear masks, socialize outside and from a healthy distance, and keep the windows open if they’re visiting someone indoors, could offer people real steps they can take to stay safer.

“That kind of PSA could actually save lives,” Ahmed says. “People want to do what’s right, but if you’re a caretaker, or someone who’s bringing their elderly mother lunch, you might not have a choice about socializing inside. A reminder to open the windows to ventilate the room, and to sit on opposite sides of the room—these are things people can do in a real way.”

For media inquiries, please contact Shannon Nargi at s.nargi@northeastern.edu or 617-373-5718.

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