MIXED MESSAGES: THE SEMIOTICS OF COVID-19 ADVICE

By Lewis Martin

In its infinite wisdom, the Conservative Government in England has chosen to change its messaging around Covid-19, from ‘Stay at Home, Protect the NHS, Save Lives’, to ‘Stay Alert, Control the Virus, Save Lives’. Putting aside the irony of both these proclamations (this government never had a plan to protect the NHS, and was about as alert to the virus as to a whale falling from the sky), this isn’t the only change that has taken place. There were also a number of subtle changes in the visual presentation of the advice that will have ramifications for how people both interpret and follow it.

The original slogan and imaging used the visual language of danger, presenting its message in black text with a yellow background and a red broken border. The messaging gave a clear progression of what was to be done in the eyes of the government to limit the effects of the virus (even though its own attempts to do this have been tepid at best). This was repeated on numerous other messages and adverts which plainly stated the impact the virus would have if people ignore guidance. The fire-like amber and red colouring reinforces the warning: ‘if you go out, people will die’.

oldvirusimage

The outgoing COVID-19 slogan. Credit: HM Government.

Although their actual management of the crisis has been shambolic, this branding exercise shows that the government were at least attemtping to reinforce the urgency of the message and the overall danger of the situation. These communications follow the language and imagery of warnings we have been given before on issues such as the supposed terrorist threat to the UK, as well as the simple, everyday warning signs that tell us to stop at a traffic light or to take a diversion. These choices are no accident and reinforce the ideas that are taught to us from a young age in order to ensure our compliance when they are seen and read. This messaging was important to the governmental process that has been taking hold since the outbreak to control the movement and lifestyle of the population. Without it, people would be less inclined to follow the advice for themselves and to nark on their neighbours for not doing so.

The new messaging and imagery, by comparison, suggests a change of strategy for the government, a choice to revert to the herd immunity concept as a blueprint for coping with the virus. The image that Boris Johnson tweeted on Sunday morning (pictured below) shows this distinct shift. The ambiguity of the wording is a stark change. Stay Alert, a phrase often heard on public transport in the continual warnings to be on guard for anything suspicious, has become vacuous from overuse and carries no meaning, and yet it is now central to the government’s message. There are also more subtle changes to colour scheme, with green appearing around the border of the new slogan, instead of red. This reduces the impression of danger and threat, confirming that this is a softening of the stance and indicating that that the situation is both safe and under control. At the traffic lights, green means ‘go’. The same logic applies here: the new messaging suggests that the country is ready to go forward, to move past the virus, despite all indications to the contrary.

new virus image

The new slogan, alongside the updated advice released on Sunday. Credit: HM Government.

So we have to stay alert to a virus that cannot be seen. How? By watching ourselves, our friends and our neighbours. This shift in language also shifts the blame for a potential second peak, from the government to the public. If the virus resurges, we will be told that we weren’t alert enough, we didn’t stay at home enough, we didn’t wash our hands enough and we didn’t continually distance ourselves enough. This is an attempt by the Tories to make sure that they are not seen as being the bad guys in this situation. In this new narrative it will be the public who caused the second peak and lead to more deaths, not the ineptitude of the government. These changes in messaging may seem small, but they are very significant to the PR project that is the government’s response to the virus. Without them, the new message can not take hold in the way the Tories want, and the blame stays with the government and not the people.

Whilst these changes are minimal in terms of the direct damage they will cause, it is important to remember that they are as impactful as the effects they’ll have. People will lose their lives because the government sold the idea that it was safe to revert to ‘normal’ as quickly as possible, all in an attempt to prop up a failing economy. This has to be remembered when this is all over and should be put under the microscope by the inevitable public inquiry. Until then, we do have to stay alert – alert to everything the government says and does, because if we don’t call out their manipulation then they have already won their battle to blame us for what lies ahead.

 


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