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New Civis Analytics Research Identifies Most Persuasive COVID-19 Vaccine Messaging for Uncertain Americans

  • Findings Highlight Need for Messages Grounded in Optimism and Empathy, Not Scare Tactics

Civis Analytics, a data science firm innovating at the intersection of public good and scientific best practices, announced findings of an experiment to scientifically determine the most persuasive messaging for Americans most likely to be uncertain about COVID-19 vaccination. The study found that the two most persuasive message themes focused on returning to daily activities and emphasizing personal choice.

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To isolate persuasion effects and minimize bias, Civis Analytics set up a treatment vs. control trial using its on-demand Creative Focus tool. Respondents were pre-selected to reflect vaccine hesitant populations, and were shown one of six messages (a control group saw no message):

  • “Vaccine Safety” highlighted the safety of the COVID-19 vaccines: the rigorous FDA process that was followed, the diversity of clinical trial participants, and the rarity of serious side effects.
  • “Getting Back to Normal” emphasized the daily activities that vaccinated individuals can enjoy, and highlighted experiences that may be off-limits to non-vaccinated individuals, such as concerts and international travel.
  • “Personal Story” told the tale of a healthy, 30-year-old woman’s battle with COVID, recounting her fear of long-term effects and inability to resume activities like running.
  • “Scary COVID Statistics” focused on the dangers of COVID (even for young adults), and the vaccine’s potential to stop these statistics from rising.
  • “Patriotism” positioned the vaccines as an example of American ingenuity, trumpeting vaccination as the ultimate expression of freedom, liberty, and country.
  • “Personal Decision” emphasized that it’s normal to have questions about the vaccine, encouraged learning more, and positioned vaccination as a person’s individual choice.
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Key findings of the experiment include:

  • “Getting Back to Normal” and “Personal Decision” were most persuasive, each increasing likelihood to vaccinate by 5 percentage points (pp) on average. “Safety,” “Scary COVID Stats,” and “Patriotism” were all ineffective, and “Personal Story” had the highest likelihood of backfiring.
  • These findings largely hold true when broken down by subgroup, but there are a few interesting differences. The “winning” messages were particularly impactful with a few specific groups:
    • “Back to Normal” was especially effective with: men (+7pp); people making incomes over $75k/year (+7pp); Roman Catholics (+8pp); people that get news from public radio, MSNBC, The Wall Street Journal and TikTok (+7pp each); and Black (+6pp), Latino/a (+7pp), and Asian (+7pp) Americans
    • “Personal Decision” was especially effective with: Republicans (+6pp); White Americans (+6pp); people that watch Fox News (+8pp)
  • “Personal Story” backfired among men (-5pp), and had no effect at all among women. Notably, using a personal story was effective in August 2020, but not in this study. Our reasoning for this change is:
    • The specific story was heavier on scare tactics, which we’ve seen does not work.
    • American society and attitudes toward vaccination have changed.
    • The 2020 test surveyed Americans of all different backgrounds and beliefs. Here, we focused specifically on populations that are likely to be vaccine-hesitant, according to our prior research.

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“The results of this experiment provide several high-level recommendations for talking about the COVID-19 vaccines,” said Crystal Son, MPH, Director of Healthcare Analytics at Civis Analytics.

“First, lead with a message of hope and optimism, emphasizing that the vaccines are a way to get back to the moments we miss the most, and that forgoing vaccination may mean it takes longer to resume activities,” Son said “Second, empathize with concerns, and acknowledge that questions are natural and normal. Encourage people to seek the information they need to make a decision. Finally, be prepared to respond to concerns about safety and side effects with accurate and straightforward responses, but don’t lead with messages intended to educate people about safety and correct their beliefs.”

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