With the snap of the snare drums, New Orleanians take joyous turns high-stepping and chicken strutting, dressed in the finery of their social clubs and krewes. The celebration, shown on a 30-second public service announcement, is one of numerous efforts around the country to persuade people to get inoculated against the coronavirus. But its homegrown approach, using neighborhood personas and invoking local Carnival culture, may make it particularly effective, say experts in vaccine hesitance and behavioral change.
“I’m getting the vaccine so we can have Mardi Gras, y’all!” shouts Jeremy Stevenson, a Monogram Hunter Mardi Gras Indian, also known as Second Chief Lil Pie, as he sways in a 12-foot tower of turquoise feathers and beading.
Other locals prance forth to offer their own reasons, concluding: “Sleeves Up, NOLA!”
“I teared up several times and also just laughed out loud with delight. The sense of community is contagious,” said Alison M. Buttenheim, the scientific director of the Center for Health Incentives and Behavioral Economics at the University of Pennsylvania. “Vaccination is framed as a collective action that everyone can contribute to in order to bring back things the community values and cherishes.”
Although national vaccine hesitation rates are falling, surveys show that antipathy to the new shots is still widespread among some demographic groups. But there has been little consensus around ways to build confidence in the shot.
In November, New Orleans put together a coalition of public health doctors, clergy, leaders from Black, Latino and Vietnamese communities, and heads of the city’s large social clubs. The group identified cultural icons that would appeal widely to residents.
Rather than focusing messaging on the miseries wrought by the pandemic, it decided to emphasize an aspirational and inviting tone, a core insight derived from behavioral change research.
“I’m getting my shot so I can visit my 92-year-old mom and we can eat in our favorite restaurants,” says Julie Nalibov of the Krewe of Red Beans.
The spot will be shown on local TV stations and saturate social media. Photographs will adorn citywide billboards.
“I hope state and local health departments around the country can get resources to develop more hyperlocal campaigns,” Dr. Buttenheim said. “Imagine similar spots from Philly, or Boise, or Hawaii, or the Cherokee Nation.”