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Anti-Vaxxers and the Arts of Persuasion
People decide with their hearts and then later justify those decisions with their heads. Can we use this idea to create persuasive messaging around COVID vaccinations?
Before we get to today's main topic, some miscellaneous goodies...
Movie: The Tragedy of Macbeth on Apple+ TV, directed by Ethan Coen and starring Denzel Washington and Frances McDormand. Powerful, approachable, understandable... there's an intimacy to this adaptation that kept me leaning forward from start to finish.
Television: We Have to Talk About Cosby on Showtime, directed by W. Kamau Bell. The second episode airs tonight. The first was so powerful that after I watched it solo I rewatched it so that my wife could see it. Between Macbeth and this documentary, I don't know which is more harrowing.
Idea: How soon until either Apple or Amazon acquire TuneMyMusic and make its Spotify-playlist-importing technology free to people switching? (An oblique followup to last week's dispatch on Spotify and Joe Rogan.)
Yikes! Somehow the old Dion song, "Runaround Sue" got caught in my head as an ear worm, so I listened to it... only to discover that it's a disturbing exercise in misogyny and slut shaming concealed in a poppy tune. I know the song is from 1961, but I'm still #disappointed.
On to our top story...
Anti-Vaxxers and the Arts of Persuasion
People decide with their hearts and then later justify those decisions with their heads.
Once you accept this, then how you approach communications changes because all communication is about persuasion in one way or another. Learning simply to ask the question, "where is the heart in this?" can be powerful, although it can also be depressing to realize that some finely-honed argument you've worked on for hours is all head. (Some of my marketers learned this the hard way during creative reviews.)
I've been in the Persuasion Biz for a while now (teacher, scholar, writer, editor, marketer, conference programmer, consultant, strategist, researcher, executive, talk show host... all depend on persuasion in different ways), and everything in my experience supports that if you capture the heart, the head will follow.
In a recent board meeting, I found myself sketching out a chart version of this idea with an extra dimension:
The extra dimension is the vertical stack that charts what you're using to persuade: carrot or stick, benefit or penalty, reward or punishment. The heart responds to fear more than it does to joy. Behavioral Economics teaches us that for most people losing $5 is a bigger blow than finding $5 is a gain. Knowing where your message falls on the quadrant can help you focus that message and make it more powerful.
These are my beliefs about persuasion, but if I'm right then convincing people to get vaccinated against COVID should simply be a matter of saying, "You're might get a terrible disease and die in a painful and humiliating way, but this free vaccine can save you!"
The good news is that this approached has worked with a majority of Americans: 64% of the U.S. population is fully vaccinated (two shots), according to The New York Times (88% for more vulnerable seniors).
Why hasn't this worked with the other 36%? One answer is that communications don't happen in isolation. An L.A. psychologist once quipped, "Y'know how in Kung Fu movies the bad guys all stand in a circle around the hero and take turns attacking him? Life isn't like that."
Persuasion happens in context, not in a vacuum.
Government mandates don't work because many anti-vaxxers are conservatives who don't like government in the first place, so forcing people to do something will only cause them to dig in their heels. We've seen this mostly vividly in a recent North Carolina transplant case where a man who needs a new kidney would rather die that get vaccinated: "I was born free. I'll die free," he said.
Force and persuasion are different things anyway.
Here are five different, non-mandate approaches to persuading the unvaccinated seen through the lens of the Persuasion Quadrant:
Approach #1: Beg
This is what we're doing today. The plea is towards the unvaccinated folks' empathy: make other people safe by getting the shot.
Heart/Carrot: This argument has already worked on the people it's likely to work on. The challenge for the still-unvaccinated is that it runs aground on who counts as "people." Anti-vaxx communications are tribal. "You, the government, can't tell us what to do!" If part of the tribal identity is to be anti-vaxx, then the tribe's people don't want to be made safe, and therefore the argument has no persuasive force.
Approach #2: Inconvenience your People the Delta way
In the fall of 2021, Delta Airlines announced that it would charge unvaccinated employees an extra $200 per month in health care fees because the unvaccinated are more likely to get sick and therefore cost the company money. This is a Nudge-level economic penalty... enough to be an ouch! every four weeks, but not a forced vaccination.
Head/Stick: effective on the penalty side and effective on avoiding the tribal barriers we saw with #1, but low heart. This is a slow-burn communication strategy... no recent news on whether the company did it or how it worked.
Approach #3: Insurance Companies Don't Have to Pay for the Unvaccinated
This is akin to the government of Singapore's decision in November of 2021 not to pay the health care costs of the unvaccinated, but with a U.S. twist since we do not have state-provided health care: "You don't have to get vaccinated, but health insurance companies can treat lack of vaccination as a pre-existing condition if you contract COVID." The high economic burden of medical care and treatment would then fall on the shoulders of the unvaccinated and their families. This would help the bottom line of the insurance companies, but would it do anything to help current stress on hospitals?
Heart/Stick: a scary penalty highlighting the cost of the choice not to take the vaccine in stark economic terms.
Approach #4: Deprioritize the Unvaccinated
Here, regardless of the severity of COVID illness, the unvaccinated would go to the back of the line, which is more fair to, say, a vaccinated person who needs a heart operation. However, as with #3, it might do nothing to relieve the stress on the hospitals since unvaccinated COVID patients would still be there, waiting.
Head/Stick: there's no way to communicate this in an easy enough way for it to work as an incentive to take the vaccine. People who resist the vaccine already don't think that they'll get COVID, so an esoteric queue is hard for them to imagine or fear.
Approach #5: No Vaccination = No Health Care
Hospitals and doctors would refuse to treat the unvaccinated altogether, even for non-COVID illness. "You don't have to get the shot, but if you don't you're on your own." This is the most aggressive approach; it's almost certainly illegal, and it's not the way Emergency Departments work.
Head/Stick: Unpersuasive because nobody would believe the hospital would turn them away.
Of the five, #3 (insurance companies don't have to pay) would probably be the most persuasive, but the political backlash would be too severe for any administration to do it in an election year.
I'm not advocating for any of these policies, and I'm not saying that anti-vaxxers are irrational.
My point is simpler: everybody is irrational.
To be persuasive you have to start with the heart, but the trick is to recognize that you have to start with the other person's heart, not your own.
Sneak Preview of Next Week's Newsletter
Listen to these two very different versions of the same song: "Fly Me to the Moon" (a.k.a. "In Other Words"):