Covid-19 vaccine ad campaign explains how bias impacts hesitancy

There’s a reason our brains have a hard time processing the risk of a covid-19 vaccine. But these facts may help you change your mind.

By Dan Monheit, originally shared on, 13.8.21

Despite the 4.59 billion doses of Covid vaccines delivered straight into the arms of the global population, everyone in Australia seems to have their take.

Sometimes good (assuming everybody can get access), sometimes bad (thanks internet conspiracy theorists), but rarely indifferent.

While a small minority are vehemently opposed to any vaccine, many more are still nervous about potential risks and side effects, especially relating to the AstraZeneca option. Unfortunately, these fears are slowing our progress towards mass vaccination, which we know is our only path out of this mess.

The fact is the risk of a fatal side effect from the AstraZeneca vaccine, according to health experts, is one in a million. For context, the risk of fatality resulting from typical daily activities such as mowing the lawn, going for a bike ride, eating, having sex or walking down the street is far greater.

(It’s reported that every year one in 500,000 men die from sudden cardiac arrest during sex, according to the National Library of Medicine.)

A new campaign targets vaccine hesitancy in Australia. It points out that the chance of death if you choke by eating a hamburger is one in 3138 compared to one in a million with the AZ jab. Source: @TheFactsination Instagram

As an ad guy and a Behavioural Science expert, I spend much of my week trying to put myself in the shoes of other people, unpicking the way they make decisions. Suppose like me, you went and got jabbed at the earliest possible opportunity. In that case, it can be hard to understand why so many others are dragging their feet, especially as we endure the misery of one lockdown after the next.

We shouldn’t be too hard on our chain dragging friends. As humans, we’re wired for short term survival, so it’s natural and often serves us well to be wary of new and different things. However, we also need to understand that there are subconscious biases at play here that also impact our decision-making processes.

Most notably is the Availability Bias, which is our tendency to use the information that comes to mind fastest (i.e. the most available) as the basis for our decisions.

If an example of something is easy to recall, we’re more likely to think it’s typical, representative and accurate. Essentially, events and memories that are recent, emotionally intense or personally significant leave more potent imprints, making them quicker to spring to mind.

A quickie, it turns out, has its risks. Source: @TheFactsination Instagram

When it comes to getting the jab, it’s easy to see how our brains can instantly draw on isolated, emotionally charged, one in a million stories about horrible side effects, rather than the hundreds of millions of incident-free and therefore unnewsworthy examples of people getting vaccinated then just going about their everyday lives.

Availability Bias is why we think we’ve got higher than realistic chances of winning the lottery or getting attacked by a shark. The thought of a shark attack is terrifying. It’s a visceral, emotionally charged memory even if we haven’t experienced it first hand.

The very fact that shark attacks are so rare means that they’re always front-page news when they do happen. Plus, there are those childhood memories from watching Jaws!

So it’s shark attacks that are the memory we’re more prone to recall when we swim beyond the breakers out into the ocean.

However, sharks kill fewer than a dozen people each year worldwide. By contrast, more than a quarter of a million people drown in the same time frame, many in domestic swimming pools and spas. Still, most of us don’t freak out or even think about drowning as there’s no visceral, emotional, easily-recalled memory to call upon.

Therefore, when you’re thinking of getting your jab, the conversation in your mind may go a little like this: “Hey brain, I’m thinking about getting an AstraZeneca vaccine. What do you reckon?” and your brain responds: “Are you crazy? Remember that perfectly healthy guy that died? Or the girl that felt like she had the flu for weeks? And what about your wife’s second cousin who got the AZ and hasn’t been able to feel her legs for two weeks? Noooo way!”

Of course, these are but three random examples out of millions of people that have had the vaccine, with little or nothing to report.

From an evolutionary perspective, it makes perfect sense that we’d remember emotional events above others. For our ancestors, if they’d eaten a berry that had made them gravely ill, it was crucial to cultivate a strong, readily accessible memory that screams ‘do not eat that damn poisonous berry again!’.

Bath? One in 685,000 chance of death. Source: @TheFactsination Instagram

Unfortunately, one side effect of this wiring is that we can end up not being scared of things we should be and scared of things that we shouldn’t.

Therefore for every emotionally charged “Don’t take it, it’s dangerous” statement, there need to be thousands, “Relax, you’ve got more chance being killed by a lawnmower,” statements in which there’s no emotional charge.

This is why advertising industry leaders are backing The Factsinaction A-Z campaign, which offers 26 ways you’re more likely to die than getting an AstraZeneca on Instagram to put those first to mind thoughts into a broader context, so they’re not frightening thoughts.

The way to overcome Availability Bias is to give people more readily available ‘good news’ stories to drown out the prominent negative narrative. Emotional family reunions, people fighting fit, and of course, lots of information about other daily tasks that are far riskier than the AZ jab are all a great start. Then, with enough of us out there encouraging, promoting and evangelising, we can clear the path to our 80 per cent target and get back to living the lives we all miss.

Dan Monheit from creative agency Hardhat is the instigator of the @Factsination campaign. Email if you wanted to check any of the A to Z facts

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