The Best PSA on Social Distancing – Ohio’s Little Power(ful) Ball

12 Apr

    For the past three months of the COVID-19 pandemic, doctors, epidemiologists and government leaders across the globe have tried to preach the necessity of social distancing.  The State of Ohio just did it in thirty seconds.

    The Ohio Department of Health and Dayton marketing agency Real Art are using a ping-pong ball and mousetraps to send a striking message about how this virus spreads and the effectiveness of staying apart and flattening the infection curve.

    The brilliance of the message is its simplicity.  Persuasive public communication and advertising is always most effective when it uses strong metaphors in human form, or to represent human activity.  In this case the single ball represents a single infected person setting off the jaws of contagion in crowded spaces.  In contrast, is also shows how proper spacing allows that same infected person to pass through without any damaging contact.

    But the simple before-and-after illustration is also a powerful teaching tool in the Theory of Trying.  Consumer behavior researchers Richard Bagozzi and Paul Warsaw developed the theory to show how intentions don’t always lead to a specific action.  In some cases, there is a goal evaluation based upon the risk of failure.  In the case of social distancing, the Ohio public service announcement clearly frames its argument both in terms of loss and gain.   In tight quarters it illustrates the consequences of failing to social distance balanced against the possibilities of success.   The framing primes one’s attitude toward trying to social distance and hopefully leads to a decision and action.

    Playing in parallel with the Theory of Trying in this PSA is Prospect Theory.  The well-established and utilized theory by Daniel Kahneman is essentially an economics theory that holds people are motivated more by a potential loss than by the possibility of a gain.  It won Kahneman the Nobel Prize in 2002 and has been the cornerstone of many successful political campaigns from Lynden Johnson to Donald Trump.  For better or worse, Trump masterfully used Prospect Theory in his 2016 presidential campaign to steer attitudes and votes based upon perceived losses to America from immigration, trade, and crime.  Likewise, President Johnson used Prospect Theory in his famous “Daisy” ad against Barry Goldwater in 1964.

    The simple ad showed a girl pulling the petals off a daisy that morphed into the countdown of a nuclear explosion.  The implied message was that Goldwater would lead to nuclear war.  The ad was so strong it only aired once.  Johnson won in a landslide.  In the Ohio ping-pong ball PSA, the loss is framed in terms of easily spreading the virus and getting stung by the traps.

    But the chief power of the Ohio flatten the curve campaign is its metaphoric simplicity.  Who knew a little ball could tell such a strong story.  The Ohio Department of Health did—it’s their own little Power Ball.

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