Stop Prodding for Poking: Why Vaccination Campaigns Aren't Working
One the greatest communication puzzles has to do with the challenge of human motivation. Let’s face it, anything having to do with human behaviour places a unique challenge in front of even the most competent communicator. And when said behaviour has to do with changing behaviour, or thought pattern, you can expect the work ahead to be that much more arduous.
Two of my go-to sources for studies on human motivation are Abraham Maslow, whose famous hierarchy of needs quite accurately asserted that needs were the trigger of any behaviour; and Daniel Pink, whose 2009 Ted Talk on motivation continues to build towards 30 million views. Maslow gave us a deep view into our brains and souls, asserting that our primal needs once served would give way to a series of needs of increasing emphasis on the emotional and less on the physical (Kunc, 1992). Pink, on the other hand picked up where Maslow and others left off with what he considered the three most important needs of people in the workplace. Autonomy, mastery and purpose (Pink, 2009).
Now, there’s always overlap between scholars (Maslow) and thought leaders (Pink) and countless others when it comes to psycho-analyzing human behaviour. At the same time, there are always inconsistencies from one expert’s take to the next. And what is an "expert" in human psychology, really. Someone who understands brain chemistry at a doctoral level may be more academically decorated than a wise-ass kid who’s able to manipulate mom and dad like marionettes, but the kid may actually be a better practitioner of human behaviour.
I’ve always called the practice of marketing “the observation and exploitation of human behaviour”. Still do. And here I’m looking at marketing in all of its different levels. Whether it be a coming up with a new product to satisfy a new need (ie: COVID 19 immunization) or whether it be the communication of the benefits of that new product, good marketing takes place when an entrepreneur or a company observe what people want, then find a way to give it to them.
Perhaps the greatest marketing communications challenge in modern history, if not human history, is now upon us. How to convince a large percentage of the population to get vaccinated. On one hand it seems unthinkable that today, 18 months after the pandemic broke out, that this is even a debate. When the world was running for cover in those dark days of early 2020, we collectively craved the day when a vaccine would set us free. On the other hand it just seems par for the course that there would be division on this issue. It's how we’ve come to roll this century. A world divided.
But I’ll leave that problem for another day. Back to the communication challenge at hand. And I do believe this to be a communication problem more than anything else.
As of yesterday, only 23% of the global population was fully vaccinated against the disease (Statistics and Research - Coronavirus (Covid 19) Vaccinations, 2021). Now, this is significantly skewed by limited distribution in populous third world countries, as well as the restriction of the drugs to people 12 years and older. But still, how do we explain the continued reluctance among those masses of people in countries whose governments are begging their constituents to get their shots?
The stereotype you may have of the typical “anti-vaxxer” – a term which alone spurs division – is likely not consistent with actuality. In fact there is no such thing as a single type of person who is resistant to the vaccine. The New York Times ran an article last month thoroughly trashing this myth, featuring interviews with dozens of “normal”, well adjusted people of all ages, races, professions, all possessing their own reasons for rejecting immunization (Bosman, Hoffman, Sanger-Katz, & Arango, 2021). I’m confident there is equal disbursement among the global population of those who have their own reasons for saying “no”, that would debunk the caricature most of us have drawn in our minds of the “typical anti-vaxxer”. So the answer to this complex communication puzzle begins here, as it does with any communications challenge – understanding your audience. In this case the audience is very, very diverse.
I feel the second part of our approach to this challenge lies not in traditional, carrot or stick forms of persuasion. We’ve exhausted those tactics. There have been million dollar lotteries to incentivize, and there have been threats of non-entry into countries without evidence of vaccination records, to punish. Still, we have vaccination rates in rich countries, such as the US and Germany, languishing around the 50% mark. What to do?
I’m going to suggest a variation of Pink’s model. Autonomy, Mastery, and Purpose. I’d simply remove the “mastery” element, as receiving a vaccination has nothing to do with getting better at some sort of skillset. Voluntary immunization does, however, have a lot to do with autonomy and purpose. People don’t want to be told what to do. And generally, I still believe, people want to have purpose – to do things beyond their own self interest. What if we approached this massive communication challenge through this dual lens?
An interesting ad from the United Nations crossed my Linkedin feed this past week which demonstrated such a tactic. It demonstrated neither reward nor penalty, but rather - unity. I'm a marketing prof and author. I geek out on analyzing ads, attaching words like "strategic appeal" and "reason-why", and what I love about the UN's ad is that it effectively blends autonomy and purpose into its simple and central big idea. It harkens back to the credo we all leaned on when this all started - "together".
From our governments to our lobbyists, to our most influential corporations and individuals, to ourselves in day to day discourse – we need to stop with the Skinner-esque approach to solving this quandary. It’s not working. Instead we need to acknowledge to those who say “no” that they have autonomy to say “no”; while at the same time, we must appeal to their sense of purpose, that they too are a valuable and necessary part of the ultimate turnaround from this dark period in history.
(United Nations, 2021)
We are all communicators. We are all blessed with the communication competency. Striving to improve our communications takes practice. It takes malleability. It takes continued iteration of approach. Doing it well makes us better humans. That’s why communication is one of the 8 pillar competencies in my book, "The Daily Undoing-Being Better at Being Human". I encourage you, as I do myself always, to stretch, flex and work out these competencies on a daily basis. My framework is not merely a tool for competency based education and learning – it is also for living a more competent life on a planet we share. In this context too, you have autonomy and purpose.
Here are three communications actions from my book to get you limbered up.
Best wishes on being better at being human.
Intrigue: Identify the trigger words of the person to whom you are writing an email, and use those words in the subject line.
Listen: Ask someone how they’re doing today, but do so with sincerity, using eye contact and empathy. Listen intentionally.
Persuade: If you desire an action to be taken from your communication, then emphasize the value you are providing.