Instead of blaming young people for Covid, engage with them

'If you want to know how to change the behaviour of a group of people, co-create it with that group.'

Paul Rudd: 'How do you do, fellow kids?'
Paul Rudd: 'How do you do, fellow kids?'

For the past few weeks, young people have been routinely blamed by the government for the rise in coronavirus cases.

While 18- to 30-year-olds obviously have a proclivity for socialising, and some, a nonchalant attitude towards their health – which will have contributed to a spike in positive cases – it seems unfair to pile all the blame at their door for taking the inches that the government gave them.

Mixed messages have been a staple of the government's communications strategy: “Eat out to help out”, the opening of pubs, and the encouragement to move into university halls of residence, only to be, in effect, locked up.

Attempting to boost the economy by letting people do all of the above somehow has to live in harmony with social distancing and other precautionary measures. So the question is not how can we deter young people from acting youthfully, but how can we persuade them to do it safely?

A government spokesperson told Campaign: “The government's coronavirus public information campaign aims to ensure people of all ages know what they need to do to slow the spread of the virus and save lives. Young people are a key audience for our campaign and we have used a range of channels – including TV, radio, print and social media to reach as many people as possible.

"We also work closely with local authorities to share best practice and insight on communications, and have delivered a paid marketing campaign according to local risk levels in England to ensure our messaging lands locally.”

But how has this turned out?

Alex Goat, chief executive of specialist youth marketing agency Livity, is not convinced.

“There has been no central government Covid comms strategy to reach young people," Goat claims. "It’s been left to local councils to try and work through how best to communicate complex and often contradictory messages from the centre."

The government, she says with a touch of partisan fervour, "has taken the well-trodden Conservative approach of vilifying the younger generation through the media, which has antagonised the situation. It’s a frustrating and familiar situation for young people in the UK to be told it’s all their fault.”

A similar blame game has been happening across the pond, with US vice-president Mike Pence claiming that young people failing to observe social distancing has led to an increase in cases (let’s leave aside Donald Trump’s own cavalier attitude to coronavirus).

It is undeniable that non-mask-wearing young people who go to out to party have played a part in the second wave of infections, so how can governments get across the idea that taking precautions is necessary, and make it behaviour to aspire to?

As a certified “young person”, caught somewhere between the downtrodden late millennial and the naturally woke Gen Z, I can confirm that people my age tend to pay less attention to rules than older generations.

This is what Camilla Kemp, chief executive of M&C Saatchi, calls the optimism bias: “the belief that bad things are much less likely to happen to them personally. Therefore, messages of fear or around probability of risk can be dismissed with a ‘but that won’t actually happen to me, will it?’.”

This doesn’t mean that as a generation we are inherently bad – we just need to be spoken to in a different way.

New York, the worst hit US state at the beginning of the pandemic, took an interesting new tack last month, as Governor Andrew Cuomo and comedy actor Paul Rudd produced a skit aimed at millennials to encourage mask-wearing.

With pop culture and meme references galore, the video is laden with stereotypes and slang. It’s a clever way to try to instil mask-wearing into popular culture.

People talk to each other online via memes and GIFs. Speaking from my own experience, there are some friends whom I don’t actually converse with. Instead, I just forward them funny videos or jokes from Twitter, and that’s enough to sustain our friendship.

If that’s how people are talking, then it seems sensible to try to penetrate that discourse.

Rudd’s PSA is laden with slang and quotable moments. “Fam, let’s real talk. Masks, they’re totally beast.” He pretends to call the singer Billie Eilish, who tells him she’s wearing his mask, saying he wants to “Stan her” and that she is “so [his] bae”. He improvises his own TikTok, inventing the “save Grandma challenge”.

These are all things that could easily be clipped and sent to others via social media, or quoted down at the pub, leading to awareness of the video and a soaking up of the underlying message: wear a mask.

The Rudd video has received 8.1 million views on Cuomo’s Twitter page and 1.4 million views on Cuomo’s YouTube channel at the last count.

Goat, however, was less than impressed by the ad's self-aware message from the 51-year-old Rudd to the youth of New York state.

“It is at least something actually aimed at the younger generation," she says. "But like so many comms made for, not with, that age group, it misses the mark. If you want to know how to change the behaviour of a group of people, co-create it with that group. This is even more critical when it comes to a younger audience.”

Celebrities and coronavirus content have not made for the best mix throughout this pandemic (remember that Imagine video, featuring various cover versions of the John Lennon song, in March?), but Rudd seems to have got something right.

Despite the UK government’s data analysis that shows its “messages have reached around 95% of 18- to 24-year-olds around nine times a week” on a variety of social media channels, such as Twitter, Snapchat and TikTok, the issue is not about how someone sees the message, rather it is what the message is.

I’m pretty sure young people do not want to open TikTok to see Matt Hancock, the health secretary, delivering a crudely scripted message about how important it is that they maintain social distancing.

Nor do young people want another Mark Strong voiceover just repeating slogans back at them. There is a need to be more creative with the messaging – by creating bespoke content tailored to the audience.

You have to commend Oldham Council for trying, at least. In August, it paid Inbetweeners actor James Buckley £34 to produce a message reiterating the rules to younger people, which went out on TikTok.

The thinking was along the right lines, but the execution somewhat questionable. I wonder what government “best practice and insight” informed the decision. The reception was bad, leaving many viewers with a sense of bewilderment. In contrast, “Certified young person” Rudd’s PSA has gone down very well on social media.

I realise all this is another example of the trope of the complaining millennial, but there is no denying that the government could take a leaf out of Rudd’s book and think of ways to be smarter about its messaging.

As Kemp says: “One alternative approach could be to recognise the power that the younger generation have, respecting and giving credit to their power. Our future is very much in their hands, after all.”

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