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The Power of Numbers

Let’s cast our minds back to 11th May 2020. It’s mid-morning at ITV studios and the nation is poised to listen in on discussions of the latest coronavirus update from the UK government.

The shot opens on Phillip Schofield and Holly Wiloughby sitting 2 metres apart on set of This Morning. Phillip is visibly agitated, shuffling in his seat. “I mean, you literally couldn’t write this…” he exclaims, as Holly gawps at her cohost’s outburst. His neck is turning red and his hands are gesturing furiously as he compares the previous night’s announcement to a TV sitcom. According to Phillip, the new instructions, led by the notion of staying ‘alert,’ are farcical in their lack of clarity. He stutters slightly, like an android suffering a short-circuit, before spitting out: “What is it that you actually want us to do?”

When words go wrong

It’s been two months since Boris Johnson announced the new phase of the UK’s coronavirus strategy and I still can’t get this clip out of my head. Why? Because it perfectly encapsulated the giant, glaring problem with the progressive slogan, Stay alert. Control the virus. Save lives. That is, words can be ambiguous – and what we needed was clarity.

Perhaps it seemed like a sensible evolution from Stay home. Protect the NHS. Save lives. But it didn’t quite hit the mark – in fact, it was so far off the mark that many of the UK’s political figures openly criticised and even rejected it. 

In an address to the Scottish public, Nicola Sturgeon explained: “For Scotland right now, […]  it would be catastrophic for me to drop the ‘stay at home’ message, which is why I am not prepared to do it … particularly in favour of a message that is vague and imprecise.”

So, why doesn’t the new slogan work? Firstly, like Nicola Sturgeon, many of us struggled to agree on what ‘stay alert’ meant – as many have pointed out, the message is vague and rather misplaced, given that what we’re dealing with is an invisible threat. And secondly, it gives us no way to quantify our adherence to the rules, as noted by Prof Simon Wessely, professor of psychiatry at King’s College London: “Research in similar situations shows that what the public most want is specific guidance on what to do and what not to do. I am not sure how this answers that.” 

Why numbers work

Contrast this, then, to the early days of the UK’s coronavirus communications, and we see a clear pattern. 

  • Wash your hands for 20 seconds
  • Stand 2 metres apart 
  • Self-isolate for 14 days if you display any symptoms

Numbers resonated, they stuck in our brains like that Baby Shark song (sorry!), offering constant reminders of the specific actions we could take to do our part during the crisis. They’re also not liable to misinterpretation – we can count to 20 seconds, mark 14 days on our calendar, and accurately estimate a distance of 2 metres (well, most of us). The early coronavirus communications were precise and instructional. And it’s this approach that was missing from the UK’s progressive slogan. Rather than vague, ambiguous advice, the general public were looking for fixed parameters to operate within. To put it bluntly (I hope you’re listening, Mr Gove), the people of this country wanted their experts back. 

What we can learn

If you’re a marketer, this case study is the golden goose of what-not-to-do’s. Yes, we’re talking about political communications, but the overriding theory is the same as any brand comms or marketing campaign: leaders use a slogan or series of phrases that aim to persuade people to take action. 

The takeaways are obvious: 

  • If you can use numbers in your communications, do. They’re a surefire way to get your message across quickly and easily, with the lowest risk of misinterpretation. 
  • If numbers aren’t relevant or appropriate, use instructional language that outlines a call to action – ‘stay home’ has a concise message that’s easy to visualise and carry out, whereas ‘stay alert’ is vague with no immediate associated action.

If in doubt, when you’re working up the messaging for your next campaign, imagine a furious Phillip Schofield reading your ad copy, looking you dead in the eyes and asking: “What is it that you actually want us to do?!

And on that note…

If you want to inspire your audience to take action, either through memorable brand messaging or a punchy campaign, we’d love to help. Visit our contact form and take 30 seconds to tell us how we can work together: