• Hayley Cherrett

How to make messages stick

Updated: Sep 11, 2020

“Hands. Face. Space”. The latest line for the nation to remember conjured up by Boris himself. Did we really need something new to remember? Does it matter that it’s just as vague as every other COVID slogan?

Here’s the thing. People get confused by too many new messages. They lose their importance. They lose their impact. Gradually we just ignore them. The result? Our behaviour and attitudes don’t change.

The government have had a few notable failures and been ridiculed for their COVID campaign decisions. But should they have done? They certainly can't be accused of giving it a go.

Take a look at this sponsored ad that came up on my Facebook.

It caught my attention because it’s different and fun. It’s keeping social distance on my radar in a new way.

Or this warmer take on Don't Kill Granny:

But the myriad of different ways to communicate the same message have been more confusing than coherent.

What copywriting techniques could they try next to give their message impact?

1. Challenge your audience

To influence people’s behaviour or attitudes, we need them to think differently. As copywriters, we need to talk to them in a way that isn’t wagging our finger. A great way of doing this is challenging their assumptions – it’s easy to ignore things we don’t think apply to us.

This RNLI ad is a great example. The first part alone might get ignored by people that think they’re confident in the water. Then comes the shock factor – no one is immune to cold water shock. The reader realises it’s relevant to them and they become aware of the problem. Bingo.

2. Tap into their emotions

As lockdown measures were put back into place in Preston, young people were told, “don’t kill granny”. It’s simple yet it puts the problem into perspective. It uses emotion. It makes them think how guilty they’d feel and think twice about their behaviour.

The only downside is that it was felt to demonise young people unfairly - positioning them as the agent of death. The problem is that the slightly trite tone wasn't rooted in a genuine insight.

This Fire Kills ad uses the technique to better effect. The question paired with the shocking visual stops readers in their tracks. Fear and sadness are primary emotions that this ad taps into very powerfully - the sense of loss is palpable.

3. Encourage them to visualise the solution

Everyone knows you should eat five a day. Ever wondered why it’s five? Well, it’s a lot more persuasive than “eat fruit and veg every day” because 5 is easy to visualise. That’s really all there is to it, and it sticks in your mind.

The fact that it doesn't need to be five doesn't matter - numbers are easier to remember than portion size.

If you want to change someone’s behaviour, make it specific. Perhaps the government should have thought of a way to help people visualise 2m.

Image from https://cheesegratermagazine.org/2020/04/01/things-that-are-two-metres-long/

4. Make it populist

How likely are you remember this in an emergency?

“Place the heel of your hand on the centre of the person's chest, then place the other hand on top and press down by 5 to 6cm (2 to 2.5 inches) at a steady rate of 100 to 120 compressions a minute. After every 30 chest compressions, give 2 rescue breaths.” – NHS website

If you tested me after half an hour, I probably would have forgotten most of that information.

Just seeing Vinnie Jones you probably remember this ad? I do. There are two important messages that are easy to remember “hands-only” and the song “Stayin’ Alive”.

Sure, the NHS information is helpful, but in an emergency situation we might not have time to follow detailed instructions. Remembering those two snippets of information could literally save a life.

There was some success with the idea of washing your hands to 'Happy Birthday', but this strand of the message soon became lost in the forest of new messages.

5. Focus on a story

If you were sitting down and having a conversation about something important, you would give an example. It reinforces your message – and it’s no different when it comes to copy.

To get to the point quickly, you could use a direct quote. Take this example from Pancreatic Cancer Action. Andy’s quote is hard-hitting. It’s an issue that could affect people like him. They shouldn’t ignore what the rest of the ad says.


Need to refresh your campaign in a hurry? We recommend you:

1. Challenge your audience

2. Tap into their emotions

3. Encourage them to visualise the solution

4. Make it populist

5. Focus on a story