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Wash your hands, wear a mask, distance… Do people actually listen?

Do public health campaigns actually improve the behaviour of citizens? Researchers investigated.

  • We keep hearing the same Covid-19 advice, but do we listen?
  • Dutch researchers wanted to determine whether public health campaigns are successful in changing people’s behaviour.
  • While there is some improvement, it depends on the type of info.

Since relatively early in the coronavirus outbreak, it feels like we’ve been hearing the same advice: wear your mask, stay home, especially if you feel ill and keep 2m away from other people.

But a new survey study published in JAMA posed the question of whether evidence-based public health campaigns aiming to contain the coronavirus could actually improve people’s awareness of the disease, as well as their personal behaviour.

What the research entailed

This survey study was designed to uncover all the self-admitted gaps in behaviour regarding physical distancing and personal hygiene in the Netherlands, and to determine if and why public campaigns are not working as they should.

The researchers then used the results of the diagnostic survey to design a social media campaign in an effort to improve citizens’ behaviour and prevent the spread of Covid-19. The campaign was launched on 21 March 2020 and consisted of a news article in a large Dutch newspaper De Telegraaf, complete with infographics to relay the information from the survey.

They also released an evidence-based campaign video based on what they found through the survey. The same video also included an interview with a well-known virologist, reiterating the importance of physical distancing and why you should avoid touching your face.

Another survey was then released after the campaign to see whether the public abided by the regulations and health advice stated in the campaign. The researchers then split participants of the post-campaign survey into four groups: group 1 did not see the campaign at all, group 2 only saw the video, group 3 only saw the infographic in the newspaper, and group 4 saw both the video and the newspaper content.

The findings

The detailed percentage of how the participants in the different groups reacted to each set of campaign material can be found in the paper. However, the findings suggest this health campaign published by a large news media platform, as well as a social influencer, had a greater effect on the behaviour of people. Those who only saw the video, did not show improvements in their behaviour.

The researchers said these strategies could potentially help to tackle health problems in the future, such as smoking and obesity.