Study shows the source of COVID-19 safety messaging impacts effectiveness

Americans have been bombarded by messages on how to stay safe during the pandemic, reminding them to wear a mask, keep their distance, and wash their hands.

A recent study found the source of those messages impacts how effective they are.

In the study, published online on August 27, 2020, in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine, researchers presented a series of different COVID-19 safety messages to close to 1,000 study participants.

The volunteers were told the messages came from either President Donald Trump, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), President Trump and the CDC together, a local or state health agency, or from no source.

Dr. Marcella H. Boynton, PhD, an assistant professor at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill School of Medicine, co-led the study with Professor Howard Tennen, PhD, from the University of Connecticut.

"We actually had a pool of over 2,500 different messages, and we systematically varied elements of the message," Boynton says. "For example, you might have read a message that said, 'Protect the people you love.  Wear a mask.  This message was brought to you by President Donald Trump.'"

Another message, she says, would warn people to stay 6 feet apart, and be credited to the CDC.

Across the board, Boynton says, study participants rated messages they were told came from the CDC or a state or local health department the most effective.

Messages with a political connection, Boynton says, seemed to have the opposite effect.

"What we found was, that for messages that included President Donald Trump as the message source or President Donald Trump and the CDC, those messages were less effective and created more negative reactions to that message than citing the CDC, or than citing a local health department or state health department," Boynton explains.

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She says she got the idea for the study after receiving a postcard in the mail with COVID-19 safety tips, credited to President Trump, the White House, and the CDC.

The researchers, who conducted the study in June of 2020, found that even study participants who said they trusted President Trump did not rate messages attributed to him as more effective than those attributed to other sources.

Those who said they did not trust Mr. Trump, she says, were more likely to have a strong negative reaction to the health messages attributed to him.

"There is something about adding Donald Trump's name to that message that decreased effectiveness and increased negative reaction to those messages," Boynton says.

Boynton plans to continue researching the effectiveness of public health messaging during the pandemic, focusing on what type of messages resonate with Americans.

Still, she says, the findings from this study were clear: Americans are more open to messages from public health sources than politicians.

"We really we need to emphasize trusted public health institution when we're sharing a message around a virus," Boynton says.  "What we also found is those institutions are trusted substantially more than Donald Trump.  So, really we need to be emphasizing messages that have credible well-trusted organizations supporting them."