How to Sell Social Distancing and Make It Emotionally Positive: A Case History (Sort of)

June 17, 2020

// By Peter Hochstein //

Peter HochsteinA group of musicians in Iceland demonstrated that promoting social distancing doesn’t have to sound like somber, top-down marching orders from an authoritarian central command. Instead, they tapped into something uplifting, communal, and perhaps instinctively primeval.

I feel sorry for the American doctors and public health experts who’ve been tasked over the past few months with convincing us to distance socially. It’s a job they desperately need to do, but it seems to defy the very notion that people are social animals. Some of us in the audience are wise enough to nod and acquiesce. Others around the nation have exhibited anger, defiance, and in some cases a barely disguised urge to kill the messenger — witness the protesters who showed up at Michigan’s state capitol at the beginning of May, brandishing semiautomatic weapons.

In New York, where I live, our health commissioner, Dr. Oxiris Barbot, has been dragooned into transforming herself into a talking head, reading a script that packs so much social-distancing instruction into short public-service videos that they seem to plod more than they inspire. Some PSAs I’ve seen that use simple graphics and titles don’t appear to do much better at captivating their audiences.

Can’t there be a more inspiring way?

The answer is yes. And it has already been done. But let’s digress for just a moment.


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