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Does fear jolt Sydneysiders into vaccination?

July 2021

This is a self-funded case study using our Advertising Testing solution.

Yesterday we reviewed ‘Arm Yourself’, the latest installment of the federal government’s campaign to get every Australian vaccinated before Christmas. While the campaign has aired nationally since Sunday, the rapidly deteriorating situation in Sydney meant viewers there were treated to a much more confrontational piece in the form of ‘Breathless’ – featuring a young, fearful, hospital-bound woman, gasping for air as she struggles with severe COVID symptoms.

It was an ad the government has reportedly been sitting on for many months, waiting ‘until the time was right’ – and Sydney’s COVID outbreak was deemed severe enough to warrant its deployment. But it raises the age-old question – does fear-based advertising even work? And if so, under what circumstances?

The very different lines of attack between ‘Arm Yourself’ and ‘Breathless’ provides for an interesting comparison. Our previous post highlighted the underwhelming performance of ‘Arm Yourself’; an ad that people found not only dull, but also reinforced their frustrations with the vaccine’s roll-out – ultimately doing little to create more favourable predisposition toward vaccination.

By focusing purely on the very graphic and disturbing impact of COVID and injecting fear into the equation – a tactic sparking memories of the Grim Reaper AIDS campaign from the ‘80’s – would it do a better job of jolting the public into action? We compared each ad’s performance using our three C’s framework:

  • Captivate: Does it attract and retain attention, and engage in an emotional way?
  • Connect: Does it frame people’s memories around the vaccination push and create instant recognition?
  • Compel: Does it leave people with a lasting impression which motivates them to get vaccinated?


The style of engagement for ‘Arm Yourself’ and ‘Breathless’ couldn’t have been more different – the former largely wallpaper and washing over people entirely, while the latter made people sit up and take notice. While this was often a function of irritation or outright fear for their own wellbeing, that it made people pay attention couldn’t be denied.

But, does this approach work? In other words, does it help “sell stuff”? Proponents of the Traffic Accident Commission (TAC) of Victoria’s work over the last 30 or so years would say yes, as would anyone to do with Quit Smoking. Our own experience shows that this strategy is much more effective when paired with an emotionally uplifting resolve, along with depicting how a simple behavioural change – one easily achieved by anyone – could entirely avoid the outcomes depicted. Driving within the speed limit, wearing a seat belt, turning off your phone while driving, etc.

Stay at home to limit the spread of COVID? Sure. Depicting a younger woman – one seemingly not yet permitted to receive the vaccine (which the ad advocates for)? Perhaps not appropriate. Reports suggest the government’s been sitting on this ad for quite some time, only ever intending to use it in a “worst case” scenario. So, while well-intended when originally conceived (i.e., the virus doesn’t discriminate against anyone – young or old), amidst growing backlash toward the government’s handling of the vaccine roll-out it risks further inflaming the situation.

Australian Govt Covid Advertising - Ad Testing Cubery - Captivate


On the topic of the TAC and Quit Smoking, would the imagery featured in ‘Breathless’ have looked out of place for either? No. Was that the intention? (i.e., depicting in a very graphic way the serious effects of COVID and need for people to take it seriously?) Yes. But, while that’s all well and good, we know campaign synergies are important – consistency in both messaging, along with general look and feel, helps amplify impact.

‘Breathless’ was a clear departure (and escalation) from prior COVID communications, lacking imagery of “the jab” which framed expectations for ‘Arm Yourself’. While some were able to recognise the topical relevance of breathing difficulties, many didn’t immediately attribute the woman’s affliction to COVID – somewhat undermining the ad’s emotional impact, and causing confusion around the intended course of action.

Australian Govt Covid Breathless Ad - Ad Testing Cubery - Connect


Does fear work? Did ‘Breathless’ encourage people to stay at home and get vaccinated? What people say and do are often very different, so while people’s own prediction of their future behaviour tells us part of the story (i.e. how they’re responding to rational claims and arguments), by combining this together with how they’re left feeling toward the cause/appeal and how different it makes the cause/appeal seem, we get a more well-rounded picture of the behavioural outcomes likely in the real world.

The confrontational imagery was considered more differentiating and even a little more relevant to people than ‘Arm Yourself’, with the urgency of the situation better-conveyed – to the point of it leaving over half of people feeling ‘anxious’ and a third ‘afraid’. As a result, ‘Breathless’ did a better job of motivating people to get vaccinated than ‘Arm Yourself’.

More broadly, like we saw with ‘Arm Yourself’, what people are really crying out for at the moment is clarity; clarity on rules, the vaccine roll-out, and path to freedom. ‘Breathless’ lacked this, being considered more confusing and less informative than ‘Arm Yourself’, with a significant proportion questioning the messaging’s credibility – particularly those for whom the vaccine remains out of reach. Ensuing frustration meant many people didn’t feel like they could genuinely ‘have an impact’.

Covid Advertising Australia - Ad Testing Cubery - Compel


‘Breathless’ might’ve had a more obvious role to play earlier in the pandemic – particularly for people flaunting lockdown rules. But its release now only serves to amplify frustration and anger, showing a graphic representation of what could’ve been avoided only if the suffering woman had been able to access the vaccine.

While ‘Arm Yourself’ fell flat due to its blandness, lack of emotion, and weak call-to-action, ‘Breathless’ strongly grabbed attention – but had the same problem of failing to give people a meaningful reason to get vaccinated.

The public’s response to the campaign reinforces the need for a different tact and more creative, forward looking, and dare-we-say-it ‘emotive’ approach. Many brands have come out with campaigns evoking warmth and excitement in anticipation of a post-COVID world – such as Wrigley Extra Gum’s ‘For When it’s Time’ and Heineken’s ‘The Night is Young’. If the next phase of the government’s campaign roll-out can follow this lead and tap into just some of this sentiment, we’d expect much greater enthusiasm toward getting the jab.

Australian Covid Ad 'Breathless' - Advertising Testing Cubery - Performance Summary

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