In “It’s Time to Scare People About Covid,” Elisabeth Rosenthal argues that our public messaging about the virus should explain the real costs — in graphic terms — of catching the virus:
I still remember exactly where I was sitting decades ago, during the short film shown in class: For a few painful minutes, we watched a woman talking mechanically, raspily through a hole in her throat, pausing occasionally to gasp for air.
The public service message: This is what can happen if you smoke.
I had nightmares about that ad, which today would most likely be tagged with a trigger warning or deemed unsuitable for children. But it was supremely effective: I never started smoking and doubt that few if any of my horrified classmates did either.
When the government required television and radio stations to give $75 million in free airtime for antismoking ads between 1967 and 1970 — many of them terrifyingly graphic — smoking rates plummeted. Since then, numerous smoking “scare” campaigns have proved successful. Some even featured celebrities, like Yul Brynner’s posthumous offering with a warning after he died from lung cancer: “Now that I’m gone, don’t smoke, whatever you do, just don’t smoke.”
As the United States faces out-of-control spikes from Covid-19, with people refusing to take recommended, often even mandated, precautions, our public health announcements from governments, medical groups and health care companies feel lame compared to the urgency of the moment. A mix of clever catchphrases, scientific information and calls to civic duty, they are virtuous and profoundly dull.
The Centers for Diseases Control urges people to wear masks in videos that feature scientists and doctors talking about wanting to send kids safely to school or protecting freedom.
Quest Diagnostics made a video featuring people washing their hands, talking on the phone, playing checkers. The message: “Come together by spending time apart.”
As cases were mounting in September, the Michigan government produced videos with the exhortation, “Spread Hope, Not Covid,” urging Michiganders to put on a mask “for your community and country.”
Forget that. Mister Rogers-type nice isn’t working in many parts of the country. It’s time to make people scared and uncomfortable. It’s time for some sharp, focused terrifying realism.
I’m not talking fear-mongering, but showing in a straightforward and graphic way what can happen with the virus.
Students, read the entire article, then tell us:
Are Americans insufficiently alarmed by the coronavirus pandemic? After nine months of social distancing and vigorous hand-washing, have we as a nation become too relaxed about Covid-19? Or do you think the people in your community are taking appropriate precautions to combat the virus?
What are you doing to keep safe and to minimize the spread of the coronavirus? Have your habits and behavior changed over the past year? Do you think you are as vigilant as before — with washing hands, wearing masks, avoiding indoor gatherings? Are your friends and family?
In the Opinion essay, Ms. Rosenthal says she believes that many coronavirus public service announcements like the C.D.C.’s “I Wear a Mask Because” and Michigan’s “Spread Hope, Not Covid” feel “lame compared to the urgency of the moment.” Watch a few of the P.S.A.s linked in the article and tell us whether you agree with her assessment.
Ms. Rosenthal writes: “It’s time to make people scared and uncomfortable. It’s time for some sharp, focused terrifying realism,” Do you find her argument persuasive? Why or why not? Should public messaging try to scare us? Do you think any of the proposed ads Ms. Rosenthal offers would be better than the “Mister Rogers-type nice” ones she criticizes? Which do you find most compelling?
Have you ever seen any scare-tactic public service announcements like the anti-cigarette ads Ms. Rosenthal describes in the opening of her essay? Did you find them affecting or effective in changing your attitudes and behavior?
On Dec. 8, President-elect Joseph R. Biden Jr. announced his plan to combat the coronavirus pandemic in his first 100 days in office, framing his call for all Americans to wear masks around patriotism rather than fear:
We need your help. Wear a mask for just 100 days. It’s the easiest thing you can do to reduce Covid cases, hospitalizations and deaths. Help yourself, your family and your community. Whatever your politics or point of view, mask up for 100 days once we take office, 100 days to make a difference. It’s not a political statement. It’s a patriotic act.
What is your reaction to Mr. Biden’s approach? Do you think it is more effective than calls for scaring the public? If you were president, what kind of message would you send to people about masks and about getting serious about Covid?
Now it’s your turn: Design your own public service announcement using still photographs or video, text, statistics and music.
What kind of approach would you take? “Mister Rogers-type nice”? “Terrifying realism”? Who would be your target audience — teenagers, adults or the general public? What message would you want to convey? What, specifically, does your audience need to know about the risks and realities of Covid-19?
If you are inspired, consider storyboarding your public service announcement, and, if you have time, record, edit and share it with your class and your school or on social media. Scholastic provides some useful tips and a sample P.S.A. storyboard.
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Students 13 and older in the United States and the United Kingdom, and 16 and older elsewhere, are invited to comment. All comments are moderated by the Learning Network staff, but please keep in mind that once your comment is accepted, it will be made public.