Cross Country Checkup

What Canada's public health officials could learn from a Paul Rudd PSA

Public service advertising can play a role in keeping people up to date about a health crisis like the COVID-19 pandemic. Queen's University marketing professor Monica LaBarge explains what makes a good spot.

Marketing prof. Monica LaBarge says ads should be engaging, short and in the right places

Paul Rudd stars in a COVID-19 PSA commissioned by New York Governor Andrew Cuomo. (Tribeca Enterprises/YouTube)

Though a pandemic is nothing like the launch of a trendy new device, marketing professor Monica LaBarge says it's crucial for public health agencies to know how to get their message out quickly and effectively — and strong ads are key.

Since the novel coronavirus swept the world earlier this year, governments and health agencies have turned to public service announcements to communicate key prevention measures: wear a mask, practice physical distancing, and wash your hands for at least 20 seconds.

The ad industry calls it social marketing, says LaBarge, an assistant professor of marketing in the Smith School of Business at Queen's University. 

"I hate to say that pandemic preparedness also should include a communications plan, but in reality it should," LaBarge told Cross Country Checkup.

"It should be like, 'OK, where are you going to put your communication from the beginning so that you're not playing catch up and making sure that everybody has the same information?'"

Monica LaBarge is an assistant professor of marketing at Queen's University in Kingston, Ont. (Submitted by Monica LaBarge)

LaBarge points to certain anti-smoking ad campaigns as positive examples of how social marketing can work. In one example, a musician performs for a crowd on the streets of New York, singing through a stoma in his neck, the result of a smoking-related laryngectomy.

Those ads had "very dramatic ways of showing [the serious effects of smoking] that was sort of captivating — not necessarily scary, like watching a car crash or something like that," she said. 

But by the end, "you got the point," she added.

Communicating the importance of continued vigilance against the novel coronavirus hasn't been as successful, however, and LaBarge broke down what worked — and what didn't — in some recent spots.

Make it engaging

In June, the federal government released an ad featuring 19-year-old Matt. In it, he speaks directly to the camera and shares his experience of contracting COVID-19 and being hospitalized in the ICU.

The ad was targeted at younger Canadians who, in the words of Matt, may feel invincible.

"I think their [the federal government's] intentions are really good, and the content of it is really good," LaBarge said. 

"I'm just not convinced that it's going to be particularly engaging with that group of people who don't really want the information."

Where some anti-smoking ads may be shocking to viewers, this one, LaBarge explains, isn't very surprising. If a viewer isn't interested in learning more about a given issue, it's unlikely they will stick around to absorb the ad's message, she adds.

"Why am I going to watch this minute-long ad with a guy talking when something more engaging is happening, like some shoes I was looking at on some web site," said LaBarge.

"I feel like they needed some real advertising agency assistance to try and punch these up a little bit."

Location, location, location

In another ad from the government of Canada, COVID-19 makes an appearance as young party goers spread purple stains on everything they touch. The stains represent the virus' spread.

"Is going to a party really worth it?" the voice over asks. Like Matt's story before it, the ad sought the attention of young Canadians.

"That's getting closer to this idea of, 'Oh, what is this purple stuff?'" LaBarge said. "But they never come out and say, 'Here's the problem.'"

Adding to the confusion, the ad emphasizes the possibility of catching COVID-19 from surfaces — an idea that may be less common than originally thought.

Still, LaBarge praised the ads for being short and prominent on digital platforms. It was regularly promoted on the popular social video app TikTok this summer.

"The question is always, are you putting them in the right places?" she said. "If I think about the web sites that I go to — the Globe and Mail and the Weather Network — that's great for me, but maybe not reaching the younger population."

The case for Paul Rudd

For LaBarge, the winning COVID-19 ad comes from south of the border and stars a beloved silver screen actor.

"Yo, what up dogs? Paul Rudd here — certified actor and young person," Paul Rudd says in the public service announcement commissioned by New York Governor Andrew Cuomo. 

"The thing I liked about it is that Paul Rudd, he's got a lot going for him in terms of reaching younger people and older people," said LaBarge.

The eye-catching ad is attention grabbing for its absurdity, she adds. 

"He's using this terminology that is clearly not the way he would normally speak and so you stay watching the whole minute ... because you're not sure what the next joke is going to be."

"No shade to Health Canada, I know they're doing the best they can. But you think about the minute you spend watching that or some of the other testimonies they have, that minute feels a lot longer than the minute watching the Paul Rudd one."

Written by Jason Vermes. Produced by Steve Howard.

Add some “good” to your morning and evening.

A variety of newsletters you'll love, delivered straight to you.

Sign up now


To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.