Stay Alert never made sense and now we’ve got the data to prove it

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We all thought that “Stay Alert” was a bit meh when the government unveiled it in May. Now we have proof it was a rubbish slogan.
New figures show how the government’s catchphrase fared poorly online, with one in four social media posts (26 per cent) expressing bemusement. Google searches for “Stay Alert” were a blend of bafflement and ridicule: between the slogan’s unveiling and the end of June, “stay alert meme” and “stay alert meme generator” were featured three times among the top 13 queries in the UK, while “what does stay alert mean” made that list twice. That is quite a contrast with the slogan’s immediate predecessor “Stay at Home”, whose simplicity and efficacy were almost universally recognised (only three per cent of social media posts mentioning it expressed confusion).

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The findings are included in a new report by Future Care Capital (FCC), a charity focused on health and social care, and pollster Ipsos Mori, which builds on social media data (Twitter, Facebook, and internet forums), Google search data, and a survey of over 1,000 people to gauge the effectiveness of the UK government’s messaging on the novel coronavirus pandemic between February 1 and June 30.
The report paints a picture of a government whose early success in giving clear, pithy instructions descends into a more nebulous and at times outright ineffectual communication strategy as the emergency drags on. The survey found that one third of the general public thought that the government has not provided enough information on how to behave with regards to Covid-19.
The transition from “Stay at Home” to “Stay Alert” epitomises the issue. While the former was intended to encourage people to observe the lockdown, the latter was supposed to gradually end it, while warning people about the virus’s enduring presence. It was unsurprisingly met with derision, with social media users comparing the coronavirus to a mugger or a spy that could be dodged, and criticising the campaign’s lack of clarity. In addition, “Stay Alert” was not effective even as a meme, says Peter Bloomfield, FCC’s head of research and policy.
“‘Stay Alert’ was there for a day and died,” he says. “Even the critical online conversations, with people making memes, mocking it and stuff like that – it was gone by the end of the week.” In contrast, “Stay at Home” kept living on well after the new slogan’s launch. “The people kind of decided they were sticking with ‘stay at home, protect the NHS, save lives’,” says Bloomfield.

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Whether that counts as an abject failure depends on the campaign’s ultimate objective. No one really gave a damn about the new slogan, and “Stay at Home” kept taking the lion’s share of online mentions – but then references to “Stay at Home” started decreasing in the following weeks. “If the idea was to stop people from staying at home, it might have worked, because people suddenly thought that was no longer the message,” says Annemarie Naylor, FCC’s director of policy and strategy. “It turned the old message off.”
The contrast between early, on-point messaging and later muddles keeps recurring in the analysis. For instance, while government’s guidance on hand-washing was generally well-received, the multiple and contrasting messages on face coverings – which were only started to be recommended in early May – elicited a less favourable reaction: 46 per cent of online posts expressed negative sentiments, ranging from questioning the effectiveness of masks to decrying the government’s early dilly-dallying. Nevertheless, the report suggests that guidance on face coverings was still met with a generally high level of compliance: common search terms relating to face coverings included “Etsy” and “sewing”.
The government’s official social media accounts also appear to have struggled to dominate the online conversation. The top influencer – that is: the most interacted with account – about hand hygiene was journalist Piers Morgan, followed closely by singer Dua Lipa; the most popular account talking about face coverings was LBC host James O’Brien. Making things worse, the online debate about the pandemic and its response was often hijacked by unedifying episodes involving government figures or advisors – Dominic Cummings’s eyesight-check being a particularly egregious case.
All in all, the figures show how tough it is to keep a messaging campaign focused and consistent over time as our understanding of the virus evolves, the economy ploddingly reopens, and people start getting fatigued about guidelines and rules. The report’s sentiment analysis confirms that anxiety and lack of compliance increased as the crisis trudged on. Probably one to keep in mind for whoever will be in charge of the government’s messaging if, or when, a second wave hits.

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Gian Volpicelli is WIRED’s politics editor. He tweets from @Gmvolpi
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