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With U.S. schools reopening amid the ongoing health crisis, educators and parents need more help than ever — not only with their primary roles, but also with the job of getting kids of all ages to buy into safety protocols.
The evidence is clear. Schools are at the heart of transmission of many diseases, and safety messaging from the government can only go so far. With their immense power, reach and resources, brands can — and should — send messages to kids and their parents reinforcing behavior change.
For over 20 years, I have been involved in initiatives to encourage school children to practice hygiene. Never before has this experience been more relevant. While conducting research for my doctorate degree in public health, I looked at research on the handwashing behavior of 4,000 children. The findings helped me spearhead one of the largest school programs ever through Unilever‘s Lifebuoy brand, which ultimately reached over 300 million children in more than 33 countries.
One of the programs we developed was the School of Five comic book, with its superheroes who encourage hygiene around the world. To date, it is the most distributed comic book in the world. Surpassing Superman, it has been translated into 19 languages, printed over 19 million times and reached more than 300 million students.
So much of this work is best accomplished through peer-to-peer modeling and role modeling, where brands can act as trendsetters and be constant reminders of new social norms. Here are some of the specific ways brands can help:
Design child-friendly products to spread the safety message
The School of Five is one example. My team and I developed the School of Five with Craig Yoe, former creative director for the Muppets. Its lovable superheroes (Sparkle, Bif, Bam, Pow and Hairyback) teach kids the five important times each day for focusing on hygiene: handwashing before breakfast, lunch and dinner as well as after using the toilet, and taking a bath every day.
Each of these superheroes could be wearing masks right now and show how their powers are amplified with physical distancing! They can also help model ways to avoid touching public surfaces. Thanks to its popularity and wide distribution, it has helped increase handwashing behavior change in some of the most remote areas in Indonesia, Bangladesh and Ghana. After the program was implemented there was a 15 percent uptick in handwashing and decreased incidence of trachoma, a disease that had previously infected many children. It is time to adapt the program at scale as schools reopen in many countries.
Build mask-wearing and socially distanced interactions into advertising campaigns
Burger King’s “menu masks,” Walmart’s new Back to School ad and Domino’s Carside Delivery ad are examples of displaying and reinforcing mask-wearing through ads, including online. More than just masks, though, ads showing children standing at a safe social distance, using hand sanitizer and washing hands — including in schools — can help set trends and inspire young people to make the behavior changes needed for public health and safety.
Craft catchy pledges kids can recite
Pledges are superb tools for creating mass buy-in, especially among kids. Think about how automatic the pledge of allegiance is every morning. Why not the pledge of safety? Brands can craft pledges that are fun, catchy and that stick. They can motivate kids to recite them regularly by having influencers do the same in ads and on social media, making it clear that these pledges are for everybody.
Start compliance competitions
Nothing motivates kids more than the prospect of beating their fellow students. Competitions foster teamwork and broad commitment, particularly when there’s a prize at stake. Brands can create new toys such as sticker diaries kids can add to each time they wash their hands using handwashing-themed stickers. Why not do the same for wearing masks, too? Think of the stickers handed out at voting polls saying, “I voted today.” How about, “I washed my hands 10 times today?” Or, “I wore my mask the full day in school today?” And, “If you can touch me, you are too close to me?”
All of these steps can help drive kids to lead the way in reinforcing the “new normal” throughout schools and beyond for as long as necessary. In a world where adults are not always on their best behavior, by getting kids to bring out their inner activist, brands can indirectly influence adults, too.
These steps can also be a win-win, helping brands gain recognition and goodwill. But beware: as I’ve said before, when taking a stand for anything, including school safety, brands must be mindful to do so responsibly — including making sure “brand say” aligns with “brand do” at every level. As the backlash to the McDonald’s ad separating its golden arches in support of social distancing has shown, if an initiative is not authentic — or if it’s designed purely for recognition or to capitalize on a situation — it will backfire. The last thing we need is for credibility around school safety messaging to be questioned.