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Good marketing can save lives. Get on it, Ministry of Health

Israel can still stop this second COVID wave, but those masks need better PR
Courtesy of Mohamed Hassan from Pixabay
Courtesy of Mohamed Hassan from Pixabay

Many of us have watched with dismay — but not the slightest surprise — as the number of COVID-19 infections began rising again after restrictions were lifted. We have eyes: people on the streets and in the supermarket are not wearing masks and are not keeping their distance. My kids’ teachers have been cheerily sending us photos of activities they are doing with their students: no masks, no distancing, and not an ounce of embarrassment about it. (We pulled our kids back out of school a week and a half ago.) People are tired of fear and restriction and want to move on with their lives. They do not feel that the pandemic is bad enough to warrant making significant changes to their lives to prevent its spread.

But the fact is, keeping ourselves safe and preventing the spread does not have to be a big deal. It seems like it does because of the extreme measures our government has been taking and the fact that the restrictions have been sweeping and constantly in flux — and, most importantly, they have not been clearly communicated to the public at any point in this crisis.

The Ministry of Health has largely been depending on the press to get the word out about restrictions and guidelines. That’s not enough. Headlines sink down the page. Not everyone checks the news regularly, and even for those of us who do, it can be confusing and frustrating to find the information we are looking for amid other news items.

The Ministry of Health should learn from the highly successful water-saving campaigns of the early 2000s. The Water Ministry did not rely on politicians making sweeping statements and making up inane acronyms like Bibi’s “Mami.” (Really, Bibi?) They took out ads and posters, and spoke directly to viewers and listeners on television and radio. They came up with a clear campaign message and easy-to-follow guidelines, and conveyed them effectively through slogans and imagery.

In other words, they had great marketing.

It is not enough to inform the public. You need to inspire them. So here are a few tips from a content writer who has been supporting corporate marketing teams for years:

1. Know your audience and appeal to their emotions

Israelis are notorious for being rule-breakers, and that’s what you’re working against when it comes to compliance. But Israelis are also extremely family-oriented with a strong sense of social solidarity — and that’s why compliance with the lockdowns was relatively high, when there was a clear message about protecting the elderly and the vulnerable.

That message seems to have gotten lost in the shuffle. “Flatten the curve” is not an inspiring slogan. “Help Grandma see her grandkids again” is a slightly better direction. Appeal to Israelis’ sense of social responsibility — just like with the water campaigns. How about something like: “I’m wearing a mask to protect you. Please protect me too.”

2. Make the guidelines simple, clear, and logical

At the beginning of this crisis, it made sense that things were constantly changing. This was new to us and we were all flying by the seat of our pants.

Things are different now. We have data. We know that wearing simple cloth masks in public can reduce the spread of the virus by 85%. We also know that in the majority of cases, the virus was spread in an enclosed area where people were interacting with each other for extended periods (that is, not at the supermarket or the pharmacy, but rather at parties, restaurants, houses of worship, and classrooms). Some studies have shown that it is usually symptomatic carriers who spread the disease — hence, the temperature-taking — but we also know that asymptomatic carriers can spread it as well.

People are exhausted. They are sick of all these restrictions. You need to give targeted, evidence-based guidelines that are 100% precise about when and where they should be applied.

Israelis seem totally on board with alcogel, and there isn’t much evidence to support temperature-taking at the entrance to shops. So focus on the masks.

Do not tell people to wear them “whenever they leave the house except when exercising.” That’s too broad and too vague. Instead, tell people to carry a mask at all times and put one on when:

  1. Entering an enclosed space that is not their home,
  2. Encountering another person they do not live with and interacting with them.

Notice that I didn’t mention the “two-meter” rule anywhere. That is because Israelis have absolutely no concept of what two meters is, especially when it comes to personal space. Try, perhaps, “two arm-lengths” — far away enough so that if both of you reached out, you would not quite be able to touch fingertips. That is much easier for laypeople to visualize. However, you must accept that Israelis will not stand this far apart from each other when interacting. It is a cultural habit that is very hard to break. That’s why you need to focus on the masks.

Again: know your audience.

3. Leverage social pressure

When you manage to convince your audience that your message is about an important value, social pressure to comply will come organically. At the moment, there is no social pressure to comply with the rules. In fact, sometimes the people wearing masks or keeping their distance have to deal with eyerolls and disdain from the people around them who are not taking the precautions seriously. This situation needs to be reversed. People should be proud to comply with the rules, and people who are not complying are the ones who should feel ashamed.

You can tap in on this by casting people who comply as being heroes. I don’t recommend heading in the negative direction (casting people who don’t comply as being selfish) because there may be people who cannot comply for physical or mental health reasons, and you do not want them to be treated with disdain or cruelty. Instead, focus on the positive and give people a sense of mission. Your keywords should be all about this: heroism, altruism, protecting people. They should not be about self-protection, because most Israelis are not actually worried about contracting the virus themselves. They are much more likely to respond to the idea of being responsible for the lives of people who are at greater risk.

4. Launch a public education campaign

Don’t rely on the media to spread your message for you. Allocate a budget for a proper publicity campaign. (Think of this as money you’re saving on additional hospitalizations.) This does not have to be super fancy. There are already memes circulating on social media that are trying to do your job, but they are reaching a very limited audience.

Design some posters illustrating how to wear a mask correctly. No, I don’t mean that illustration going around with the whole song and dance about washing your hands before and after, never touching the front, and all that. That’s too complicated, people are not going to do that, and it’s not what actually prevents the spread — the actual wearing of the mask is the most important thing. So stick with the bare essentials: to wear a cloth or surgical mask that covers the nose and mouth whenever entering an enclosed space or interacting with another person outside your home. Emphasize the nose part, because for some reason this point seems to be lost on a large swath of the population. (I saw photos in this publication of the likes of Gantz and Abbas wearing masks that did not cover their noses.)

Make these posters simple, large-print, and uncluttered — something that won’t take more than a minute to read — but make sure they convey your message about social responsibility, either through the illustration or through a slogan. Print them and distribute them to HMOs to post prominently in health clinics. Make the digital file printable and downloadable for free, and encourage business owners to print it and post it on their doors, too.

Idea: manufacture a series of surgical or cloth masks printed with a slogan about being a hero or protecting people and hand them out in public places for free. Kind of like those cardboard kippas at the Kotel, they will enforce the idea that this is a social norm and provide a non-judgmental way to encourage people who are not wearing masks to cover up.

If you can swing it, take out television, social media, and radio ads, too. Again, these should not be about self-protection and they should not be about statistics. They should aim straight for the feels. An idea off the top of my head: find a person whose parent died from COVID-19 and play a short clip indicating how beautiful their relationship was (a home video, or a few minutes of the person speaking about their parent), then have them look sadly straight into the camera and say, “You can prevent the death of someone else’s parent. Please wear a mask.”

5. Localize your message

One of the biggest failures of the campaign to stop the spread of the first wave was the failure to properly inform specific communities — namely, the Haredi communities. It took too long for the message to sink in to those communities, and once it did, it was too late. The Haredi community has suffered disproportionately, as compared to the rest of the population, from this pandemic. That did not have to happen.

Reaching the Haredi community is a matter of reaching its leaders and mobilizing them to spread the message in terms their followers identify with and understand. It is a travesty that former health minister Litzman failed to do this at the beginning of the crisis.

It should be the same with every sector of society. Your signs and posters should be available in Arabic, Russian, Yiddish, English, and Amharic, as well as Hebrew — perhaps in Tigrinya as well, seeing as the Eritrean community in Tel Aviv has been hard-hit, too. And they shouldn’t just be translated, they should be localized. That is, consult people who are actually part of those communities to make sure you are communicating the message in a way that is most likely to resonate with that community.

Israelis are not a lost cause

It may seem like there’s no point in trying to encourage people to take these measures because no one is taking the virus seriously anymore. But that’s not true. Israelis have proven themselves willing to deal with a great deal of discomfort when they are convinced that the cause is worthy. The challenge right now is to convince them that the cause is worthy, and to show them what simple, reasonable lifestyle changes they can make will help us as a nation triumph over this threat.

About the Author
Daniella Levy is the author of Disengagement, By Light of Hidden Candles, and Letters to Josep. Her prose and poetry — in 3 languages — have been widely published, and she was nominated for the Pushcart Prize for her short fiction. She is also a freelance copy and content writer. Born in the USA, she immigrated to Israel as a child, and currently lives at the edge of the Judean Desert with her husband and three sons. You can learn more about Daniella and her work at Daniella-Levy.com.
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