Coronavirus: Stories & Stats

One of the first things you learn as a rookie business development professional is that stories and emotions sell. Statistics on the other hand, even when understood—and they often aren’t—don’t. Think of it as one of the ten commandments of sales.

It is why, I am quite certain, very few sales or advertising professionals will be surprised at the current struggles public health officials are facing to achieve certain behaviour changes among the public in response to the coronavirus pandemic.

Look around, it doesn’t seem to matter what country it is, the reactions to the measures taken by governments around the world—ranging from hard “lockdowns” to minor social distancing—run somewhere between mild irritation and full-blown resistance. It is difficult to identify a country where most people, without compulsion, simply accepted the necessity of these measures and complied with little fuss. I believe this response has something to do with the lack of stories and a relatable emotional core to the unfolding narrative. There is nothing we can anchor our fear to.

I think you need a visceral sense that you or a loved one is in danger to change your behaviour, and, more importantly, to keep it changed.

I know it is saying something to suggest that asking people to comply or risk death is not a sufficient motivator, but, honestly, it just isn’t enough. We hear talk of rates—infection rates, mortality rates, recovery rates; and new additions to the language like bending the curve, social distancing, and contact tracing. But where is the tragedy in all that? Where is the danger to me?

Without taking anything away from the great work being done by thousands (maybe millions) of health professionals and public servants, it is very difficult to get the right response without that sense of danger. Most people believed you in February, and then in March, and possibly April. But it’s June now. Where is the nightmare we were warned about? Where are the bodies? Where are the dying? Where are the graphic, unforgettable, epoch-defining images? Where is the human tragedy?

(I realise that there is a circular construct in that last question: The success of the public health response in February, March and April, it can be argued, is the reason we didn’t get the human tragedy in May and June.)

Thinking back to the last truly global pandemic lodged in the popular imagination—the HIV/AIDS pandemic—most people remember the AIDS skeletons of the 80s and 90s (which let us not forget left a trail of horrific stigma on the victims). I doubt that they have any recollection or idea of the details of the challenge. And why should they, that’s not something we should expect Joe Everyman to know. And yet, he carries deep within him a vague sense of dread about the realness of that virus and so takes the necessary precautions. (A dread or awareness which needs to be constantly rekindled to avoid complacency.)

And that’s how it goes. Tell me that the murder rate in your city is 5% and it is meaningless to me. Show me a picture of a murder in all its detail, it becomes my personal problem, it establishes for me the realness of the murder problem in that locale. That’s what stories and emotions do that statistics cannot.

The coronavirus presents a unique challenge in this respect. It kills in a far too benign manner to lend itself to the sort of storytelling that shocks. And yet, it is infectious and lethal enough that the bodies keep piling even as complacency grows. We have to show the numbers and preach the precautions, but we lack the emotional hook to bring and keep people in line. You cannot fight a virus people don’t fear.

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