Are we doing health campaigns right?: the vaccination story

“Never give up until they buckle up”

“Quit smoking before smoking quits you”

“It’s the little prick you can deal with”

Whether it’s getting kids to wear seatbelts, trying to reduce the number of smokers, or motivating people to get tested for HIV, public health campaigns are all around us. Some campaigns have been around for decades, like the Safe to Sleep campaign to prevent Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS), while some have been fairly recent pushes, like promoting a soda tax to reduce added sugar consumption. New or not, almost all campaigns are similarly constructed: each contain a catchy slogan, a captivating image, and sometimes even a celebrity endorsement.

Although there hasn’t been a plethora of empirical research detailing the effectiveness of such campaigns, it is commonly assumed that a successful public health intervention needs a persuasive element to it. One of the most famous and successful campaigns in the last century has been the one for vaccines, whether it be for polio, measles, or chickenpox. Vaccination has become such an important national topic that at any point during the school year, parents will inevitably see a poster saying Don’t Wait, Vaccinate.

But are slogans and campaigns effective in getting people to do what health officials want them to do, like wearing a seatbelt or getting vaccinated?

A recent study published in the issue of Psychological Science in the Public Interest has looked specifically at vaccination interventions, showing that contrary to popular belief, “shaping” the behavior of patients and parents to get vaccinated is more effective than persuasion itself.

The researchers noted that the frenzy behind “anti-vaccers”, or those against vaccinations, has been perpetuated by the media, giving off an image that a high proportion of parents are refusing to get their kids vaccinated. However, there is not as much pushback as people assume. Rather, most people consider child and adult vaccinations as favorable, and children almost universally receive their physician-recommended vaccines. However, many adults do not consistently uptake their vaccines. In response, the researchers indicated that many adults’ “favorable intentions” towards vaccinations can be successfully translated to proper vaccine use when interventions include the following:

  • Using “behavioral strategies to facilitate action”, such as sending out reminders or prompts via an annual postcard from a healthcare clinic;

  • Decreasing clinical barriers to vaccine access, such as automating routine doctor appointments;

  • Shaping” behavior, such as requiring all kids at a preschool to have the flu vaccine, or incentivizing teenages to receive an HPV vaccine.

Although this study specifically examines  the role of persuasion in the success of vaccination interventions, other public health campaigns have been researched as well. For instance, when it comes to mass media campaigns, single behavior campaigns (such as vaccination or breast cancer screening) have a higher likelihood of success than campaigns targeting ongoing behaviors (such as exercising every day or eating healthy).

Although translating  research findings is not as easy when it comes to the nuances of different behaviors and health campaigns, there is one thing we know for sure: more research needs to be done--until then, we can stick to proactive behaviors like vaccinating as much as we can.