COVID-19 Warnings – Too Far or Not Far Enough?

It has taken a few months for brands and advertisers to catch-up on the COVID-19 pandemic following a strange period where ad breaks on TV continued to show people going about life as usual pre-pandemic.


Now, the vast majority of media carries messaging about the precautions businesses are taking and the measures that are being made to protect customers.


Government and health authorities have also caught-up, with regular messages about staying safe, but have they gone far enough?


Or do adverts like this, from the Scottish government, go too far?



There is an important debate to be had around health warnings in advertising which is exemplified strongly in this visually striking piece.


Fear is a powerful tool and it’s used abundantly in advertising.


‘Exclusive offer ends TODAY! Don’t miss out, you’ll regret it FOREVER’


Will I DFS? Will I really…?


This is an every day use of fear in advertising, the fear of missing out, but when used in public health warnings, there is often a kickback on its use, with messages labelled as fearmongering and traumatic to viewers of a certain demographic.


The COVID-19 warning above, has elicited a similar response, but isn’t that the point?


Isn’t the point of all advertising to make a strong and memorable impression?


The Scottish government acknowledged that the campaign is ”hard-hitting”, but that in research the push (targeted towards 18- to 44-year-olds) proved effective and highlights ”the risks of unknowingly spreading coronavirus to those we love”.




”The importance of the message required a bolder approach and was professionally and independently tested to be effective throughout development.”


The target audience for the campaign is clear, young people who may not be at risk but who can easily spread the virus. Unfortunately, the number of young people (18-25) who watch terrestrial television is declining as the popularity of streaming services proves, while people in the age bracket of 65+ watching traditional TV, continues to remain strong.


Unfortunately, this may result in more older people viewing the advert and being made even more afraid of COVID-19 as a result of the strong visual aspect.


However, as has been proven, because the advert is so visceral, it has received attention from the wider advertising community and so, people are now seeking it out and the message is getting around.


Public health warning have a long history of using the same tactic, as shown in some of the other memorable examples below.


Do you think they go too far? Or is this the kind of content that the public needs to see to make them change their behaviour?




Alcohol – Know Your Limits 


This NHS advert caused a stir when the first broadcast was made in early 2000s, but the sentiment is strong and one most people can relate to. Like most shock-inducing adverts, a familiar and innocent scene is presented to draw people in before the inevitable bad ending.



Network Rail

See Track Think Train


This Network Rail campaign was particularly shocking due to the use of an innocent game of ‘eye-spy’ and the seemingly innocent presentation of a family day out. Once more, the safe and sunny set up of the advert ticks viewers into a safe sense of security before delivering the stong impact.




Drink Driving


Most people living in the UK will remember THINK adverts due to their hard-hitting messages and concepts. 




Road Safety Authority Ireland 

Don’t Look Back 


A particularly emotive and powerful advert, this campaign ran in Ireland a number of years ago but retains its impact and strong response by the end of the piece.  



It’s fair to say that these adverts evoke a strong emotional response and leave a lasting impression, so when it comes to life and death, public advertising deservingly has licence to go a little further.


Otherwise, it’s just another DFS advert.


George Brown