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Why the ‘Novax’ Djokovic racket won’t help persuade vaccine skeptics

Why the ‘Novax’ Djokovic racket won’t help persuade vaccine skeptics
Written by publishing team

Matt Redman, chief strategy officer at marketing agency Dark Horses, reflects on how the holding of the great tennis vaccine Novak Djokovic in Australia shows how our favorite sports can shape discourse.

Once again, sport has become the stage where the world’s biggest cultural conversations take place. In this case, it’s not about racism, gender equality or global politics — it’s a vaccine adoption issue.

As such, the way we approach Novak Djokovic is important. His case is emblematic of a much larger debate. If we are serious about vaccinating the rest of the developed world (not to mention countries we are not yet in), we need to think carefully about the fate of Novax Djokovic, the ultimate anti-vaccination poster.

The Australian Federal Government’s treatment of Djokovic was – as Judge Kelly pointed out Monday morning – was deliberately punitive. It’s similar to the aggressive approach we’re seeing from other world leaders, with Macron declaring he would “piss off” the unvaccinated in France. This discourse may be commonplace, but it is counterproductive.

This should be of particular concern to marketers. As experts in communication and persuasion, we must advocate another method. We are the architects of previous impressive behavioral change campaigns, with alert tactics and insight, that have successfully helped many other community health issues. Persuasion tactics have so far yielded a good assimilation of what McKenzie calls “careful” groups, but very little movement in those who are “unlikely” to be vaccinated. This group, to which Djokovic certainly belongs, is much harder to crack.

I learned this from recent personal experience. Over Christmas, I spent time with someone who had repeatedly refused the Covid vaccine. Despite all my best efforts, I could not convince them to change their minds. This frustrated me, so I spent most of my break learning more about the vaxxer controversy and how we can go about making change.

Persecution of those who do not want a vaccine reduces the strength of their faith. Repression reinforces these beliefs even more. Restrictions may work against vaccinators, but true anti-vaccators will give up their careers and their freedoms and – in Novak’s case – their dreams of holding fast to their beliefs. Make him a martyr and others will be inspired, not oppressed.

Society not only underestimates their beliefs, but their intelligence as well. Tony Blair recently called anyone who hasn’t been arrested an “idiot”. This is not useful. This is not true either. Novak Djokovic, for example, is no fool: he speaks five languages, has traveled the world and speaks to the media better than most politicians.

This blind spot for anti-vaccinators means that it is easy to ignore them and this is a mistake because they are in fact in many ways the best means of communication. Read the Center for Combating Digital Hate’s report on the Anti-Vax Handbook and you’ll see that their messages are smart, consistent, and compelling.

Conversely, the pro-violence argument dances to their tune, and energy is expended mocking their views as “mumbo jumbo.” And the more you do that, the more airtime and ammunition you give to those arguments and the more questions it creates among vaccine undecided. In the digital world, arguing with an anti-vaccinator is like drowning in quicksand – the more you confuse the worse it gets. As Reagan warned, “If you explain, you lose.”

We are often slow to realize that some people are really afraid of a vaccine. It is easy to confuse logical arguments with emotions. Journalist Mike Bartlett said, “You can tell your kids there’s no monster under the bed, but you can’t stop them from feeling like there’s a monster.” If someone has an emotional fear of doing something, it is nearly impossible to win that argument with rational facts alone.

Society also often shows a surprising lack of empathy for anti-vaccination advocates. Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison says “Rules are rules” and, to be fair, everyone should be treated equally. Except of course treating everyone equally is not fair. For most people, getting the vaccine is not important. For Djokovic – and others like him – this is not the case. He did not risk his career and reputation lightly. Rarely do we consider that this is not the same for all of us.

So what should we do? I’m not advocating Djokovic getting a free pass, but the way we deal with him should be a blueprint for how we deal with all those who haven’t been vaccinated yet.

First, we need to listen and ask questions. It is true in the case of Djokovic that he was reticent about this, but it can only be said because when he spoke, he received a backlash. Anti-vaccinators are often grouped together as a single entity, but their causes are very individual. In the case of Djokovic, he has a very specific set of medical beliefs which often serve him very well. Really being willing to listen to those individual interests is key if we want to change our minds.

Second, we must be willing to compromise some ground. The argument in favor of a vaccine has become so absolute that it is paradoxically self-defeating. Admitting that it is reasonable to be hesitant and that we do not have all the answers does not weaken the argument in favor of fax, but rather strengthens it.

Third, we need to find common ground. We cannot isolate a percentage of our society forever. Making them the enemy does not solve the problem. We need to find a way to work with them. There is one thing that unites us – we all want Covid to end – so if we start from there, we are more likely to find the solution together.

Finally, we need to give them time and space to change their mind. This is perhaps the most frustrating thing about Djokovic’s situation. If handled differently, this can be a healthy and productive discussion over time. Instead, we saw a trial show attempt that, in the words of Andy Murray, “isn’t good for anyone involved.”

I think we must accept that we will never change some people’s opinions, but as practitioners of communication and behavior change, it can be argued that we have more responsibility than we are trying to do. For the reckless politicians of the time, punishing anti-vaccination well affects their constituents, but is very ineffective in actually changing minds. There are no easy answers. It takes time and patience, but we can start with Mr. Djokovic.


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