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Health & Science

'This Is Marketing' Author On How To Market A Vaccine To Americans

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Even with vaccines in sight, public health officials are warning Americans to keep their guard up, to keep washing their hands, wearing face masks and practicing physical distancing because, as we said earlier, the virus is continuing to sicken and kill people across the country. And public health officials are pleading with people to limit travel for the upcoming holidays. And yet, millions of people ignored that message this past Thanksgiving. And as well, there's concern that too many people are still refusing to maintain or in some cases even start implementing the habits that help keep people safe. So we wondered if there's a different way to communicate the message, especially at a time when Americans are so divided on so many levels.

We called Seth Godin for that because he knows about effective messaging. His TED Talk, called "How To Get Your Ideas To Spread," has been viewed nearly 7 million times. And he's the author of numerous books on the topic, including the bestseller "This Is Marketing." Godin says it's helpful to look at what's worked in the past.

SETH GODIN: So people didn't stop smoking when it was explained how dangerous it was. People stopped smoking when Hollywood and TV made it less cool and when CVS stopped selling cigarettes and when the taxes went up. And at that point, people made a new decision based on new information. And they didn't say, I am bending to authority. They said, I'm the kind of person that doesn't want to be around people who are smoking. And it's a - sometimes a generational shift. It's not an easy thing to do, but it is not based on scientific data. It is based on the local heroes in our community. When they start doing something, we start doing something. So if we had modeled mask-wearing in March when we could've, in April when we could've, if we had seen that from the people who were being broadcast all around us, it would've gone a long way to establish that people like us do things like this.

And my hunch is that people's fear of death, which is real, is going to overcome our need to signal partisan division. And it won't happen all at once. And I believe it will happen in pockets. And the obligation that people have is to show up in their community wearing a mask because that sends a signal, and it has a multiplier effect.

MARTIN: I think I hear you saying that - I mean, it's important that the president-elect, you know, wears a mask, models this behavior, the vice president-elect wears a mask, models this behavior and is continuing to do so and is sort of calling for people to get on the same page. But what I think I hear you saying is that's not enough by any means, and, actually, you need different people to model this.

Like, I'm thinking about - I don't know where I saw this picture. It was Elvis - a picture of Elvis getting a polio vaccine backstage at "The Ed Sullivan Show." Is that what we're talking about here? We need people that other people follow to do this.

GODIN: That's brilliant. That's exactly right because people didn't follow Elvis because he was elected to anything. They followed Elvis because it was a choice. They saw something in themselves. And what we have the opportunity to do is model behaviors not at people but with our peers in circles to establish that if you want to be in this circle, this is what we do.

Years ago, I wrote a blog post about bike helmets. And what I found is that people on the bike path in Provincetown, Mass., every couple, either both people were wearing a helmet or neither person was wearing a helmet. And I thought, that's weird. And I hung out at the bike store for 20 minutes watching the rental of bikes. And what was happening was after you rented the bike, the owner said, and do you want to rent helmets? They're a dollar extra. And there was a pause. And whoever spoke first in the couple was the decision that the couple made. So if the person spoke first said, no, thanks, neither one wore one. If the person said, sure, both of them wore one. And so the way to get people to wear bike helmets is to put both helmets on the table and say, do you want to rent helmets? Most people do.

MARTIN: Interesting.

GODIN: And at that point, the person who's inclined to wear a helmet's going to speak up first because in that moment, it's easier to fit in. And once one person does it in the couple, the other person's going to do it as well.

MARTIN: Is there anything you would avoid when it comes to spreading a message, both about mask-wearing and other public health behaviors and, you know, getting the vaccine? Is there something you would not do?

GODIN: Well, one thing we know is that having an argument about facts when someone else is having an argument about belief is a waste of everyone's time because we're not discussing one thing when we think we're discussing the other one. And so we have to begin by understanding that if this is a cultural thing, a thing about community and belief, then more facts are not going to be the answer.

And then the second thing, which goes right next to that, is people who choose to believe something aren't stupid. They are just prioritizing that belief over something that we can show using a paper and pen. But announcing that they're stupid doesn't help us get to where we want to go.

MARTIN: How do you feel - do you feel - just looking at how all this has unfolded over the last nine months, so many sort of conflicting messages. When you look at this as a person who - with such deep experience in sort of spreading a message, do you feel optimistic that this thing can be turned around? What's your - let me take your temperature about this. I mean, do you feel optimistic or pessimistic?

GODIN: Well, the first thing is that human beings are consistently and persistently irrational, as Dan Ariely has said. No. 2 is when in doubt, look for the fear because deep inside - just like a chocolate-covered candy, deep inside, every mysterious behavior is some sort of fear or insecurity. And then the third thing I would say is we have been around for a long time, and human beings are resilient. There are tragedies along the way. There's injustices. We've indoctrinated people into ways of thinking that are counter to well-being. All of that is true. But somehow, we muddle through.

And I believe we will muddle through this. I think we will get through it better and faster and happier if people can understand that they will be proud to tell their grandchildren that they got a vaccine years from now because that's what their circle does. They're doing it for their family. They're doing it for their neighbors. And they're doing it for themselves because deep down, people do care about themselves and their families and their community. But sometimes, the stories get in the way.

MARTIN: Seth Godin is an author, entrepreneur and marketing expert. You can watch his TED Talk, "How To Get Your Ideas To Spread." Nearly 7 million people already have. We reached him in New York.

Seth Godin, thanks so much for your good advice.

GODIN: Thanks for the work you do. It's a pleasure.

(SOUNDBITE OF GODDAMN ELECTRIC BILL'S "MARCH AT DAWN") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.