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Research and Innovation

To Tackle Vaccine Apathy, Keep It Quick and Catchy

bored man yawns
Photo credit: Sammy Williams.

Some people don’t care whether they get vaccinated. The bad news is that reaching people with “vaccine apathy” requires different tools than reaching people who are actually reluctant to get vaccinated. The good news is that we know how to reach them.

Developing messages that encourage the apathetic to get vaccinated is the focus of the recent JAMA article “When Vaccine Apathy, Not Hesitancy, Drives Vaccine Disinterest.” To learn more, we spoke with Stacy Wood, who co-authored the paper. Wood is the Langdon Distinguished University Professor of Marketing at NC State’s Poole College of Management. Wood’s co-author was Stanford’s Kevin Schulman.

The Abstract: What is vaccine apathy, and how does it differ from vaccine hesitancy?

Stacy Wood: Vaccine hesitancy describes people who have actively pondered the decision about whether to get the COVID-19 vaccination and who have thought a good deal about the benefits or risks as they perceive them. But vaccine apathy is quite different and represents a disinterest that stops people from even considering whether to get the vaccine. For many vaccine-apathetic people, they may think something along the lines of “this does not relate to or concern me,” or “this vaccine is only important for other people,” or “it doesn’t really matter if I get the vaccine.” And because of this, they don’t pay attention to information about the vaccine.

TA: Why is it important to be aware of this distinction?

Wood: It is so critical to understand the difference because the way to communicate with and persuade those with vaccine apathy is the opposite of what works with vaccine hesitancy! The messages and incentives that work for vaccine apathy are also counterintuitive to those who work in healthcare. Doctors, for example, who are working to increase vaccination will try to offer more and more factual data to persuade – and while this can be effective for those who are concerned about safety or efficacy, it pushes those with vaccine apathy away. It doesn’t help and it can even hurt by further reinforcing their disinterest.

TA: Why do messages that are effective in addressing vaccine hesitancy backfire when used to address vaccine apathy?

Wood: It all boils down to the motivation to process choice-related information; what we in marketing call “involvement.” If decision-makers have high involvement, they are keen to see and consider information that is relevant to their choice (whatever their choice may be). They will spend the time and mental effort to process that information. But those decision-makers with low involvement are not motivated to spend the time and mental effort and so they ignore messages with elements that take a lot to process – messages with details, statistics, logical arguments, etc. Offering those kinds of “strong” messages will simply be ignored.

TA: So, what messages do you recommend for encouraging people with vaccine apathy to get vaccinated?

Wood: Low involvement decision-makers can be influenced by messaging and persuasive campaigns. What works is information that is fast and easy to process – something that can be comprehended almost immediately. For example, humans process emotions, catchy slogans, visuals and bright colors quickly. They process immediate personal gains (e.g., incentives and ‘freebies’) and immediate personal losses (e.g., not being able to register for college, having to pay an insurance penalty like for smoking) much more so than long-term gains like the gradual reduction of infection rates.

TA: Given what you just told us, what do you make of the vaccine incentive programs that have been put in place in Ohio and elsewhere?

Wood: The lottery in Ohio (and other states) is exactly the kind of attention-grabbing promotion that works with the vaccine-apathetic. I know it may look horrible to those who are highly involved in the COVID-19 vaccination, but it is a practical solution that is working. It is also more cost-effective than many realize! Marketing campaigns to promote the vaccination are very expensive and primarily reach the high-involvement population – I think the total spent by the Ad Council on vaccine messaging is in the range of $500M (for both bought and donated advertising space). So, to spend $1M on a lottery that garners so much free press and reaches a different, lower-involvement population is not a bad use of funds. Many people will discuss and write about the ethics of the situation for years to come, but right now pragmatism is holding sway.

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