Pro-vaccine messages touting safety and frightening COVID statistics may backfire on you, new study finds

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CHICAGO – Messages that were successful in persuading unvaccinated people to roll up their sleeves this spring may no longer work. It is according to the new survey research, who also finds that some pro-vaccine messages can backfire and lead to greater hesitation.

The study was conducted by Civis Analytics, a Chicago-based technology company focused on data-driven audience campaigns. Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, the group has advised state public health officials and other entities on the effective promotion of COVID-19 measures, such as mask wear and vaccines.

The new results also suggest that it is more important than ever to consider that the about 1 in 3 eligible U.S. residents who are not vaccinated are not consistent.


“They are diverse, they have different concerns, they come from different places,” said Crystal Son, epidemiologist turned data scientist and director of healthcare analysis for Civis Analytics.

“In order to convince people, you have to actually use the data to understand these people and not just assume that you know what they will react to,” Son adds. “And what works for everyone, on average, is often different from what works for smaller subgroups of that population.”

Earlier this year – before the emergence of the Delta variant and the entry into force of mask mandates – the most persuasive pro-vaccine messages were those that highlighted activities that vaccinated people could once again enjoy, such as concerts and international travel, says Son.

Messages emphasizing vaccines as a personal choice – and encouraging people to learn more – were also persuasive to many earlier.

But now the messages most likely to be effective, overall, are those that focus on the need to protect children too young to be immunized – and also those that emphasize the financial costs associated with hospitalization. COVID.

And across various demographics, the messages that appear to be persuasive – and those that backfire – vary.

The latest study from Civis Analytics looked at 5,111 unvaccinated U.S. adults who participated in an online survey between August 19 and September 8, 2021.

Screenshot of the Civis Analytics report

Participants were then asked about their intention to be vaccinated, and the researchers calculated the impact of different messaging approaches, compared to the control group.

“We borrow a lot from the principles of randomized controlled trial frameworks [used in] pharmaceuticals and medical tests, ”says Son.

This type of scientific approach to understanding vaccine reluctance is important, she says, because when people ask what prevents them from getting vaccinated, many will cite concerns about vaccine safety.

“Yet when we test this type of message using our framework, we find that this message is generally ineffective at best – so it doesn’t persuade anyone to get the shot,” Son says, “and in many cases, it can actually cause something called a negative reaction ”- which means the person is less likely to say they will be vaccinated after seeing the message.

Other posts that appear to elicit a negative reaction include those that feature alarming COVID statistics or share a personal story of an unvaccinated person dying of COVID and wishing they had been vaccinated.

Screenshot of the Civis Analytics report

Screenshot of the Civis Analytics report

One of the main lessons from the new research is that the most persuasive messages have changed, Son says.

” In the beginning [of the vaccine rollout], when you have incredible demand, you can feel like your email is really working, ”says Son. “But that might just be pent-up demand. It doesn’t necessarily mean that your email is working.

If entities interested in increasing vaccination rates continue to use the same strategies deployed earlier in the pandemic, they are unlikely to be successful, she says.

Read the full report on Civis Analytics ” website.

Christine Herman is a journalist at Illinois Public Media. Follow her on Twitter: @CTHerman

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