Defend Truth


Powerless persuasion: Marketing industry distinctly missing in action during a pandemic

By Andy Rice
19 Aug 2021 4

Andy Rice is a speaker, writer and strategist based in Johannesburg.

Our collective response to the pandemic has been desperately poor, at a time when we have quite enough desperation out there.

The marketing and communications industry was missing in action a year ago when the need to drive Covid testing was paramount, and we’re absent again now that the imperative has shifted to vaccination.

Our stock in trade is persuasion, and yet in the private sector we’re doing precious little in the way of persuading anyone to change their behaviour. Maybe it’s the government’s responsibility? On paper, perhaps.

But leaving things to the government communications agency, GCIS, to handle is not a good idea. However much they might believe their own vision (“to be the pulse of communication excellence in government”), they are nowhere near achieving it. Asking the GCIS to put together a world-class communications campaign to drive behaviour change is about as wise as asking our ad agencies to run courses in epidemiology.

Horses for courses. Our much-admired communications industry should be taking the lead in mass messaging, strategically and creatively. Heaven only knows if we’ll get a third chance to shift widespread and deeply held beliefs.

We won’t do it with the kind of safe, bland advertising that is all we’ve seen so far. Stuff that tells us what to do, but gives us no good reason to do it. We already know what to do, but we don’t appear to be interested in translating that knowledge into action.

Shifting social behaviour is the communications industry’s worst brief. Whatever the issue – smoking, speeding, unsafe sex , you name it – most people understand the risks but go ahead anyway.

There are three broad approaches we could consider: coercion, incentivisation and motivation. Only motivation has any real likelihood of success. Coercion triggers resistance, and incentives look like bribes (giving the lunatic fringe of anti-vaxxers all the ammunition they might need). Motivation is when individuals start to believe that things will get better if we vaccinate. It’s when we have had the benefits of vaccination spelt out to us so clearly and so persuasively that we want to have the jab, not reluctantly but voluntarily.

Sounds easy enough, but it’s not. We need to pool resources and talents to take us beyond the campaigns in which brands are self-congratulatory and suggest they’ve done their bit once the donation to the Solidarity Fund has been acknowledged. Not good enough.

We urgently need to convene a brains trust of our very best strategists, creatives and media experts who can put rivalry aside to devise and craft communications solutions that are as credible as they are seductive. We need every brand in the country to sign up to contribute their skill (and their money) to this critical national endeavour.

And to those few who are already producing great motivational work (step forward MTN and Savanna in particular), please show us all the way. DM


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All Comments 4

  • Right at the beginning we offered to form a consortium of experienced communicators to guide DoH and NICD pandemic communications. Got no response. Why would you want pro bono support when there is money to steal.

  • Marketers (aka peacetime propagandists) I reckon were not deemed necessary by the powers that be, who were of course falling over themselves to loot the new pool of crisis funds made available. Our centralised government authority has little need of propagandists during peacetime and being as Left as they are on the spectrum probably means they only ever consider one option anyway: coercion.

  • Andy Rice, along with the marketing and advertising industry, is likewise silent on the ecological crisis facing the world in spite of the ever increasing red light warnings we are seeing daily in respectable news feeds. This poses a far greater existential threat to humanity yet it seems to sit squarely in the blind spot of most people. The advertising & marketing industry may one day have to answer for it’s role in promoting rampant consumption that is one of the drivers of eccosystem degradation. I guess we will have to wait until we have a woldometer of climate disruption deaths before we start thinking about a different way of life.

  • I do agree with Andy, but it is true that Solidarity and the DOH were not keen to be assisted – and then there was the money spent on “Digital Vibes”.
    The communication has been incredibly bland and didactic…

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