Dear CDC: Fire Whoever Made Your Coronavirus Ads and Try This Instead

To the tune of dreary piano music, Dr. Deborah Birx gazes into the camera and addresses America in a motherly tone: “We know that we’re asking Americans to do a lot right now, so we’re asking everyone to be selfless for others so that we can protect those who are most susceptible to this virus.”

Next up, Dr. Anthony Fauci clarifies that social distancing means “Not going to bars, not going to restaurants, not going to theaters where there are a lot of people.”

U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Jerome Adams wraps up this cinematic masterpiece by reminding us that “We all have a role to play in preventing person-to-person spread of this disease, which can be deadly for vulnerable groups.”

In the midst of a pandemic that has killed the equivalent of Dayton, Ohio’s entire population and cost 30 million people their jobs, this is the advertisement the CDC is relying on to rally our nation.

Before I suggest my alternative, let me clarify that I don’t study infectious diseases. Nor does your neighbor who hates wearing a mask in the grocery store or your aunt who thinks Bill Gates is funding vaccines that have 5G-activated tracking chips. I won’t waste my time explaining how masks reduce fatalities (the science is conclusive). Instead, I’ll explain how the CDC made America’s biggest PR mistake of the decade, and how it (might) be able to reverse it.

There is an art to getting people to do what you want (like wear a mask). That art depends on your ability to see the world through the eyes of your audience. “Most people are completely trapped in their own wants and desires,” says the author Robert Greene. “They refer to grand emotions such as love and gratitude…They go for the big picture when simple, everyday realities would have much more appeal.”

Sound familiar?

Let’s take money-conscious conservatives who are eager to open up America and save the economy. Like it or not, millions of Americans simply don’t care about the health and safety of strangers as long as their portfolio performs well. You can waste time trying to change their minds, or you can simply tweak your messaging to appeal to their self-interest.

For example: Goldman Sachs researchers found that a national mask mandate could save 5 percent of America’s GDP. There’s no telling whether Republicans would mask up if the CDC ran an advertisement on Fox News that linked masks to a roaring stock market. But the odds are better than telling people to “be selfless.”

“When your president speaks the language of economic growth, rather than human lives saved, you have to translate ‘masks save lives’ into ‘masks will save 5% of GDP,’” says NYU marketing professor Adam Alter.

Let’s take an equally stubborn group of people: 20-somethings who want to party. We despise hearing the word ‘no.’ From the time we were toddlers, that simple, two-letter word evoked more anger than any other word in the English language. Now, unsurprisingly, many of us don’t want to listen to a bunch of gray-haired government quacks standing behind their pulpits telling us we can’t go to bars.

Last month, I suggested — only half-jokingly — that the CDC should commission Future and Kendrick Lamar to remix their 2017 hit song “Mask Off” to a more culturally relevant “Mask On.” Or the CDC could run a campaign showing people in New Zealand (which now has zero coronavirus cases) enjoying normal lives again because they followed the rules back in March.

Putting Dr. Fauci on TV every day and having him tell people to “wear a mask because it will slow the spread of coronavirus” is like telling a five-year-old he can’t have candy because you said so.

If you want to persuade people, you have to meet them where they are. Take it from communication guru Frank Luntz’s genius book, Words That Work: It’s Not What You Say, It’s What People Hear.

You can have the best message in the world, but the person on the receiving end will always understand it through the prism of his or her own emotions, preconceptions, prejudices, and preexisting beliefs. It’s not enough to be correct or reasonable or even brilliant. The key to successful communication is to take the imaginative leap of stuffing yourself right into your listener’s shoes to know what they are thinking and feeling in the deepest recesses of their mind and heart.

Human beings are, in the words of Dan Ariely, predictably irrational. We don’t respond to logic when it conflicts with a narrative that’s already embedded in our brain. Trying to fight this is like trying to smooth out rough water with a flat iron. If you want to effect change in the world, you first have to see the world as it is.

“Language is like fire,” says Frank Luntz “Depending on how you use it, it can either heat your house or burn it to the ground.”

Or, in our present case, language can be the difference between attending football games this fall and watching them play in empty stadiums from your couch.

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