I’ll Get The COVID-19 Vaccine And A Flamingo Shaped Helmet

Do we need better ad campaigns to reach herd immunity?

Photo by Rafael Garcin on Unsplash

On the road to my workplace hang posters of the European ad campaign for COVID-19 vaccination. They portray a rugby player who “takes it for the team”, and a teacher that gets vaccinated because she cares for her students. The final message: getting vaccinated is more of a moral duty than an individual health decision.

Isn’t it a terrible marketing strategy?

Most ad campaigns for the COVID-19 vaccine are based on risk communication. Spokespeople are scientists and physicians. They talk about the vaccine being safe and its success rates in avoiding contagions.

The recent campaign by the Australian Government is a perfect example of it:

In this brief spot, there are three important messages:

  • the community needs people to get vaccinated (it’s for “US” to live more freely);
  • the COVID-19 vaccine qualifies as a safe medical treatment;
  • people at risk should be the first ones to get vaccinated.

The Australian campaign is better constructed than the European one. Yet, none of the spokespeople addresses the viewer. They appeal to the collective consciousness.

Both campaigns are lacking incentives.

The flamingo shaped helmet

Why ad campaigns promoting vaccination are lacking incentives

For the upcoming two months, I will be teaching my students at University the Economic Theory of Law. It should give them some tools to analyze legal rules in terms of the incentives they give to people, questioning how they modify people’s behaviours.

Follow me on this. Our starting assumptions will be that there are:

  • no legal obligation to get vaccinated;
  • no legal obligation to wear a helmet while bicycling.

Imagine we’re crafting an ad campaign for flamingo shaped helmets. We want consumers to buy our helmets, so we need to give them incentives. These incentives range from saying the helmet is a trendy accessory to stating it increases chances of survival when hit by a car.

But if we don’t focus on the individual buyer, what do we get? What about an ad campaign on drivers who won’t get sued if you wear a helmet? Would it persuade you? Even though you own a car and drive often?

I doubt so.

Now let’s go back to the COVID-19 vaccine. Can health be enough of an incentive? Or is it just one? By calling to moral duty, aren’t we looking at the issue from the driver’s perspective?

The Great Dictator

Individual decision-making and altruism

Ad campaigns for vaccination take for granted that people mind their own health. They then push on a sense of community and mutual responsibilities.

Altruism is a complex trait. Neuroeconomics’ professors Samuel Bowles and Herbert Gintis define altruistic behavior as:

any costly behavior that confers an economic benefit to other individuals, regardless of the motives behind such behavior.

In other words, altruism is about making other people’s lives better while lacking an incentive to do it. It may seem oxymoronic, but altruism influences cooperation between people in the form of punishment. Quoting once again Bowles and Gintis:

altruistic punishment [is] the costly punishment of norm violations without any personal benefit for the punishing individual, but with potential benefit for other individuals.

A basic paradigmatic game of economics will help you understand. Its name is pretty revealing: the dictator game.

Let’s pretend the two people who play are Lady and Gaga and they both go with the pronouns they/their. In our version of the game, Lady has 20$ in their wallet and they can choose to give some of their money to Gaga. Gaga has no money and will have to accept whatever amount from Lady, even zero. Gaga has the possibility to punish Lady, dishing out penalty points. Whatever punishment Gaga decides, it will be sustained by both Lady and Gaga.

For instance:

  • Lady gives 5$ out of 20$ to Gaga;
  • Gaga sets a 4$ penalty;

Lady will end up with 11$ in their pockets and Gaga with 1$.

This operation qualifies as altruistic punishment, as Gaga bears a cost without a financial benefit. The penalty won’t change how Lady behaves with Gaga. Yet, as the game continues it could benefit other individuals. Lady will likely change their behavior in the future to avoid punishments.

According to recent studies, people who make altruistic choices have different brain structures. They represent a slight percentage of the population. An equal percentage is inherently selfish. Most people qualify as conditional cooperators. They are strategic players. They act according to the consequences of their actions. To build a sense of community, we need conditional cooperators to believe altruistic choices are strategic ones.

Counting sheeps

Incentives and herd immunity

Herd immunity occurs when enough people become immune to a disease, either through previous infections or vaccinations. Right now, we’re estimating it would take over 65% of the global population for herd immunity to COVID-19.

Streetart in Turin, Italy | The Photo was taken by a friend of the Author. Her name is Martina Sammarco

Getting vaccinated is an individual health decision. Yet, the decision-making process is based on the positive outcomes of it. Of course, health is a crucial aspect of this decision. People have been exposed for over a year to how deathly the virus is and most are responding to vaccination in a positive way.

Yet, if you switch your perspective to anti-vaxxers, they believe their health is better preserved if they don’t get vaccinated. Health matters have no influence on their individual decision-making. To their minds, getting vaccinated qualifies as an altruistic choice.

Back to the dictator game. Would anti-vaxxers consent to the treatment if we out the consequences of not reaching herd immunity any time soon? By advertising the presumable length of limitations on leisure activities? From going to restaurants to travelling or enjoying a concert? Will we need to do that to reach herd immunity?

The green badge

Are we already realizing we’re lacking incentives?

Israel is a leading country in vaccinations right now, thanks to the contract they concluded with Pfizer Inc. By the beginning of February, circa 40% of the population was already vaccinated. Data showed a significant drop in infections.

The vaccine was quickly made available to young people, who are not behaving the way authorities expected them to.

Source: Our World In Data

Rejecting proposals to make the COVID-19 vaccine compulsory, Israel’s government implemented a “Green Badge”. Only vaccinated people will be allowed to enjoy leisure activities, such as going to the gym or to the theatre.

While this double standard raises legal concerns, Israel is the first country dealing with the ineffectiveness of an ad campaign based solely on health and moral duties. And it’s moving to different incentives, in the form of prohibitions.

Conclusions

Currently, most States build their ad campaigns for vaccination on risk communication. They push people to get vaccinated by reassuring them of the treatment's safety. They call on their mutual responsibilities as part of a community.

These incentives may not be enough to reach herd immunity. Altruism has no strong influence on individual decision-making. “The greater good” is tempting whenever people see a positive outcome for themselves.

Israel, as a leading country in vaccinations, is already dealing with people who show no interest in getting the treatment. So, the Government is trying to oblige younger people to get vaccinated by limiting their access to leisure activities.

Could we avoid setting legislative discriminations, by choosing better marketing strategies?

Foolish as it may seem, saying the vaccine saves lives is not enough.

We need to appeal to all flamingo lovers out there.

A being. Trying to get somewhere. Probably, Mars.