15 July 2021

Horror movie, right there on my TV!

The Back Page

It’s as Australian as meat pies and football: the disturbing public awareness campaign.

For generations, our nation has been proudly making some of the world’s most upsetting commercials designed to terrify the population into good behaviour. From speeding to smoking, there isn’t a community issue we can’t turn into a punishing 60 second horror movie.

Perhaps the crowning achievement of our national oeuvre is the Grim Reaper AIDS PSA from 1987, which turned a whole generation onto condoms and off of bowling forever.

Perhaps seeking to recreate that iconic work’s impact, the federal government this week released a brutal covid awareness commercial in which a young woman lies in hospital desperately gasping for breath. At the ad’s conclusion, we are told “Stay home. Get tested. Book your vaccination.”

While this ad trades the nightmarish Fellini-meets-Freddy Krueger spectacle of Grim Reaper for a more visceral mode à la Dreyer’s La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc, its intention is the same: to scare the crap out of you.

Sure, it might not be very pleasant when it pops up while you’re eating dinner in front of Antiques Roadshow, but at least it’ll drive more people into vaccination centres. Right?

According to Dr Jessica Kaufman, who is part of a team researching vaccine acceptance, it may actually have the opposite effect.

“We’ve seen with vaccination in particular that fear campaigns or scary messages about diseases can actually cause people to become more fearful of vaccine side-effects,” she said.

While we focus on the horrific personal cost of covid, other countries like Canada, the UK, Singapore and New Zealand are taking a more positive, community-oriented approach to promoting vaccination.

Kirsten McCaffery, Sydney Health Literacy Lab director at the University of Sydney’s School of Public Health, praised these ads for their humour and use of everyday language. Critically, she points out that they both get across the important message that “vaccination is for the community not just the individual”.

So it seems that Australia’s beloved tradition of scaring the public straight might not be as effective as we thought. But remember what happened last time we tried to put a cute, positive spin on a serious public issue?

Maybe we should just stick to what we’re good at.

If you see something scary, email felicity@medicalrepublic.com.au.