The Psychology of Public Health Messaging

Source: Salt Lake County Health Department PSA

The stark, in-your-face COVID-19 public health messaging from the Salt Lake County Health Department has begun to stir controversy. In the image above, a large, white, presumably Mormon extended family is sharing Thanksgiving dinner. They are all maskless and not socially distancing. We are told that the man at the head of the table has no symptoms of COVID-19 but has had the infection for nine days. Instead of the obligatory “cheese!” or “turkey!” the woman taking the family’s photograph says,”Everybody say: I was just exposed to COVID!”

Other public health messaging in this series targets a more racially/ethnically diverse group of young people socializing together at an indoor party, and a grandmother seeing her (unknowably COVID-positive) grandson (we are told she ends up in the ICU with COVID-19 less than a week later). This series of public health images and messages brings up fascinating issues related to the effectiveness and ethics of public health messaging. These ‘ads’ are professionally produced and appear to be well thought out in terms of target groups and influential messaging to motivate people to follow public health guidelines. Thankfully, there was thought given to avoiding reinforcing negative (and false) stereotypes as to the ‘vectors’/sources of the disease, since no person of color was labeled as the identified source.

The November issue of the American Journal of Public Health includes articles on the rise of mental distress across our country stemming from the COVID-19 pandemic, the negative health effects of COVID-19-related racial discrimination of Asian Americans, and one titled “Reimagining Public Health in the Aftermath of a Pandemic” (sources below). The authors of this latter article make the case for advances in public health infrastructure, effective ways to counter misinformation, and improvements in risk communication. They state, “We already know that researchers are adept at communicating with other researchers but less skilled in reaching non-research audiences. Skilled spokespersons are needed. Generally, the public health community can learn much from business and social marketing, which tailor messages and target audience segments.” (p. 1609)

Anxiety and fear of disability and death from contagious diseases or natural disasters can be powerful motivators for individual behavior change up to a certain point. But tapping into that anxiety and fear through targeted public health messaging can backfire when it becomes too much for people to take in or becomes nagging, nanny-state background white noise.


“Mental Distress in the United States at the Beginning of the COVID-19 Pandemic,” by C. Holingue, et al, in the American Journal of Public Health, November 2020, vol 110:no. 11, pp. 1628-1634.

“Potential Impact of COVID-19 -Related Racial Discrimination on the Health of Asian Americans,” by J.A. Chen, et al, in the American Journal of Public Health, November 2020, vol 110:no. 11, pp. 1624-1627.

“Reimagining Public Health in the Aftermath of a Pandemic,” by R.C. Brownson, et al, in the American Journal of Public Health, November 2020, vol 110:no. 11, pp. 1605-1610.

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