"The mask is not for you. It's to protect the people you care about."
That advice didn't come from Dr. Anthony Fauci. Or, at least it didn't come from Dr. Fauci first. That quote is from 2012's The Dark Knight Rises. After an important battle scene, Batman (played by Christian Bale) advises police officer John Blake (played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt) that heroic work comes at the cost of wearing a mask to ensure the safety of your friends and loved ones.
Eight years after the movie's release, the Comic Con attendees among us may still be familiar with that scene. The public? Not so much--and that fact represents a missed marketing opportunity for public health and government officials.
Children of the 1980s will remember innovative marketing campaigns that focused on creating behavioral changes in the public. The United States Forest Service created Smokey Bear--initially named Hotfoot Teddy--in the 1940s. For the next several decades, Smokey informed kids and adults alike that "Only YOU can prevent forest fires."
Smokey Bear isn't the only example of an effective public safety, character-driven marketing campaign.
The Ad Council and the National Crime Prevention Council, in partnership with the Department of Justice, created McGruff the Crime Dog in response to increased violent crime in the 1960s and 1970s. Like the Smokey Bear campaign, it was effective. Within a few years, studies showed the public began implementing McGruff's recommendations, including locking doors and being more aware of your surroundings. While McGruff doesn't deserve all the credit, his debut marked the beginning of a multidecade decrease in violent crime.
Wearing a mask is a matter of public safety. Public health officials and an overwhelming majority of the public understand that. However, the tactics officials have used to encourage mask-wearing often have not included a recognition of the need for buy-in. Instead, the marketing campaign for masks has centered on threats of penalties and fines.
Given the seriousness and tenacity of the pandemic, we should try a fresh approach to mask mandates.
Comic book superheroes are America's best-known homegrown mythology. For more than a decade, they have been the subjects of Hollywood's biggest blockbusters. Given that, why aren't we seeing Batman's face plastered on every billboard and in every third commercial telling the public that wearing a mask protects the people you love? He's already said it once, in a movie that grossed more than $1 billion in box office receipts.
Shaming, yelling, and penalizing people are poor ways of gaining compliance. The creators of Smokey Bear and McGruff understood that. They also understood the power of buy-in, especially when the message is shared by characters that resonate with the public--including children. Any clever marketer knows the fastest way to change adult behavior is by devising a message that resonates with their kids.
A coronavirus vaccine is not guaranteed.
We may never get out of this pandemic without serious behavioral change. Why not ask for Batman's help?
It worked for Commissioner Gordon.
It might work for Dr. Anthony Fauci.