You don’t tend to see the flags any more. 

It was only half a year ago that initial lockdowns led to flags hanging from balconies, singing of patriotic songs, and in the UK, a weekly round of applause for the National Health Service.

In virtually every country, solidarity reigned. 

It’s fair to say (and confirmed in findings from the UK’s Office for National Statistics) that this initial sense of national unity has now ebbed away. 

The situation is now vastly different. But the virus remains indifferent. It remains a threat, and public messaging about the virus still has to be broadcast, regulations have to be observed, and pretty much everyone needs to know what the public mood is. 

In the spirit of sharing and collaboration that was a hallmark of six months ago, we offer up the following insights to help you read the room. 

Here’s where we’re at with regard to COVID-19

Key takeaways

  • Understanding of and compliance with COVID-19 regulations are generally high but they could be closer to 100%. As guidelines get fragmented by region, we can’t take these figures for granted.
  • There are different reasons why people don’t understand or comply with regulations. “COVID overload” might lead people to switch off from knowing the latest guidelines, while those that don’t comply are probably finding it difficult to replicate social environments.
  • Trust in government response in the UK and U.S. is seriously low, and low levels of trust among young people may be behind non-compliance. Recognising their situation, and trying to improve it, may be needed to ensure their disillusionment doesn’t turn into a “why bother” attitude. 
  • Household context makes a big difference. Targeting should take people’s living situation into account as it has a considerable bearing on how people behave.

1. Most people understand what they need to do – but not all.

Most people say they understand what’s asked of them in relation to mask-wearing, social distancing, and other mandated regulations.

A good benchmark, but it could be closer to 100% – particularly among younger generations.  

Initial messaging was fairly clear-cut everywhere – stay at home as much as you can. The coming winter will be murkier, as restrictions will vary by region and some businesses will be forced to close while others are allowed to stay open. Understanding of regulations could drop even further.

Understanding of COVID guidelines

There’s already been a precedent for this. In the UK, the change of slogan from “stay home” to “stay alert” received some criticism for its perceived ambiguity. But it shows how difficult it is to put out a message that’s more refined than telling people to stay indoors as much as possible. 

We can highlight which groups need extra targeting to ensure they follow COVID-19 regulations. It’s predominantly younger men who don’t understand their government’s recommendations, and perhaps surprisingly, education doesn’t make much of an impact.

It’s always about 15% of the online population who don’t agree that they understand regulations, whether they’ve been educated to secondary level or hold a postgraduate degree. 

It doesn’t feel surprising that younger men take the lead here.

Perhaps ever since the World Health Organization said in August that young people were driving the spread of the virus, many have been tempted to place responsibility onto them for subsequent outbreaks, assuming it’s driven by an innate carelessness or sense of invulnerability. 

But by digging into the audience a bit more, we can uncover some surprising insights about why they may not be aware of current restrictions. 

They’re typically big news readers, so it doesn’t seem right to call them uninformed. They are, however, more likely to say they feel overworked, and that they’re deeply worried about the time they spend on social media. 

A lack of understanding around regulations could, therefore, come about as people become overloaded with information, causing them to disengage and lose track of what the current guidelines are. They’re not apathetic, but overwhelmed. 

Paradoxical as it may seem, getting close to 100% understanding of the regulations may mean being more tactical.

Publishers, platforms, and governments have to be aware of their collective impact in COVID-19 messaging, and how overexposure can actually lead to people switching off. 

2. Not everyone is doing the right things all of the time.

Understanding the regulations is one thing, actually following them is quite another.

The story here is similar to understanding – most are complying with social distancing, but there’s enough of a shortfall to warrant further investigation.

Across all age groups, 83% say they follow their government’s guidelines all or most of the time.

Very few say they never follow social distancing guidelines, but for many people, compliance is on a spectrum. A sizable chunk of the population will, from time to time, not comply. 

Non-compliance COVID guidelines

There may be valid circumstances behind this – workplaces where effective social distancing is difficult, for example. 

But, with the same aim of trying to get the figure as close to 100% as possible, we can identify the types of people most likely to not comply. 

Here though, we have to stress one thing above all: those that don’t follow the regulations, and those that don’t understand them, are not the same people. 

They are superficially similar, in that both groups skew young. But most people who don’t follow the regulations all the time know what they ought to be doing. 

There are other differences between these “don’t understand” and “don’t comply” groups. The latter has a more even gender split. Their average age is a bit younger, and they’re more likely to be students. 

Education is also a better predictor of compliance than it is understanding.

A higher level of education makes people more likely to follow regulations than to understand them.

By drawing on our extensive attitudinal and behavioral data, we can go even further. Those that don’t always follow the regulations are bigger risk-takers. They’re more spontaneous and care more about their image. They’re more likely to use social media to meet new people. 

People that don’t follow the regulations are, fundamentally, social animals. 

So where does that leave us? Depending on whether it’s intended to boost understanding or compliance (and both would be valid at this point), any messaging has to recognise it’s dealing with different groups of people, with different media habits and different personalities.

It might also be time to recognize that people not complying with the regulations feel they can’t satisfy their social and psychological needs. Could we, for example, be more imaginative in reaching these non-compliers, showing them virtual forums that they can socialize in, as well as warning them away from real-world settings that they can’t

3. Young people are less likely to comply, but not because they don’t care.

In the case of these “don’t comply” and “don’t understand” audiences we’ve discussed so far, they’re both much more likely to now be less concerned about the risks of the virus than at the beginning of the outbreak.

Take this stat at face value, and it would fit in with a certain devil-may-care attitude among young people often portrayed in sections of the media.

But if we zoom out a little bit, we find that this is only a minority of young people.

In actual fact, young people are more concerned about the virus than they were at the beginning of the outbreak – more so than their older counterparts.

Concern about COVID-19

Could it be because they were less concerned to begin with? Possibly.

Again, though, there’s more happening under the surface. For one thing, concern about the virus is informed a lot by household living arrangement. So people living with a partner, or with their children, are more likely to have become less concerned about the virus since the beginning of the outbreak. Whereas those living with roommates/friends have typically become more concerned. 

But strangely, this doesn’t correlate with compliance. If you live with roommates/friends you have, on average, become more concerned about the virus – but less likely to follow social distancing.

People in this situation, particularly young people, may feel powerless to keep themselves safe at home. Whereas those in more stable family households could feel less concerned precisely because they have more control over the people in their household.

As a result, those in shared accommodation may find it difficult to buy into the measures needed to control the outbreak. It’s harder to buy into collective messaging when where you live isn’t exactly a refuge.

In marketing we’re used to segmenting individuals based on their age, gender, and other demographic or psychographic information. We preach about subtle differences among people and how much they matter.

In this case, the nature of a pandemic means that household context counts a great deal: living with roommates usually poses more of an infection risk compared to a stable family unit, and this is likely to impact behavior. 

4. Young people are seriously disenchanted.

So far we’ve established that young people are more likely to not understand or comply with COVID-19 regulations, though the reasons why are more nuanced than is often supposed. And there is a final reason in understanding why this might be the case. 

Trust in government response has fallen universally since the initial outbreak of the pandemic.

But trust among young people has pretty much shattered. 

Trust in government response

Across the UK and U.S., no generation currently has a confidence rating above 39% in their government’s response.

Only 23% of Gen Zers believe their government is handling the pandemic effectively. 

Back in our first wave of COVID-19 research in March, approval of government actions was fairly high, but it’s seriously deteriorated since then. The young are far from unique in feeling disillusioned, but the feeling is particularly acute among them.

The behavior of young people has to be viewed in light of how they’ve been neglected in responses to the pandemic. 

The absolute priority this year has been to protect the most vulnerable in society and while this hasn’t changed (nor should it), the return to schools and colleges has greatly increased the risks for young people. But they are, for the most part, expected to just get on with it. 

The so-called collateral damage of the virus – cancelled schooling, a crashed economy and deeply disrupted social relationships, to name but a few, are wreaking havoc on them.

Much more could be done to recognise this and offer support, rather than betting they are resilient enough to endure it. It’s not just a good thing to do in its own right, but it may be what’s needed to boost compliance and understanding. Trust is the foundation of behavioral change, and that trust needs to be won back.

We recognize that COVID-19 means difficult choices in which groups to prioritize, and it creates tough trade-offs.

In those strange, early days of the pandemic, businesses took the lead in responding to a deeply uncertain situation where governments couldn’t, and it may be the case that youth-focused businesses are best placed to address their disenchantment in the short-term.

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