Power to culture and imagery in COVID-19 communications

Coronavirus safety isn’t exclusively preached to us by politicians or doctors. In some parts of the world it’s the job of superheroes, in others – graffiti artists, and in some, the South American Tapir does the job.

With a globalised world experiencing a universal struggle, it’s interesting to see the extent that COVID-19 communication differs between nations, demonstrating how culture influences approaches to disseminating critical information. It also illustrates the power of the image to prevent the public from switching off to the same health messages being repeated ad nauseum.

It’s been three months since the city of Wuhan went into lockdown. Countries around the world have since followed, but what have been their creative solutions to health campaigns?


Mexico’s vibrant culture is at odds with the concept of self-isolation, so the government enlisted the help of a superhero. Cartoon heroine, Susana Distancia, invites people to imagine maintaining 1.5 metres distance as a superpower.


A spokesperson from the Mexican government explained to The Washington Post:

‘The intention is to create a form of communication that’s direct, friendly and outside traditional parameters. In an emergency situation that causes panic, what’s better than someone friendly?”

The use of a superhero is also reflective of Mexico’s cultural traditions. Such characters have dominated the country’s culture for years and differ from the superheroes we are used to in American cinema. Generally, they don’t have supernatural powers; rather, they are symbols of resilience, a trait that the COVID-19 virus demands of all of us.


In Vietnam, health authorities worked with local lyricist Khac Hun to repurpose a hit song into a lesson on social distancing and cleanliness. The result is a catchy pop track that went viral. John Oliver featured it on his show Last Week Tonight calling it a “genuine club banger” and the catchy melody inspired a dance challenge on TikTok.


Not only does the content promote the benefits of personal hygiene, but the casual, friendly tone helps prevent catastrophising, encouraging people to continue with life but with added precautions.


America took this approach with the help of the Sesame Street gang. Elmo has always been a fierce dental hygiene advocate, but now, he’s given his popular “brushy brush” song a lyrical update to reflect the realities of COVID-19. The coronavirus remix is featured in a series of animated music videos that promote good hygiene and safety for the duration of the crisis and beyond.


The Singaporean government commissioned a public education video starring comedian Gurmit Singh, who plays his famous sitcom character, Phua Chu Kang. The video depicts him “getting serious” and showing viewers how to protect themselves from COVID-19 with simple but effective message : “share the video, not the virus!”


Over in Senegal, a collection of graffiti artists are partnering with a university to produce public health messages that are accessible for everyone. Some of the Senegalese population can’t access radios and TV’s but the graffitied walls are open to all. The messages are largely visual too, to communicate to a population that struggles with literacy.


Finally, in Guatemala, authorities sought help from an unlikely source: The Central American Tapir – a large, herbivorous mammal resembling a pig (but with longer legs). An ideal choice to spark Guatemalan imagination, since the Tapir is roughly the two metres we should be keeping from each other to prevent the spread of the virus.

The sign translates as:

“If you encounter each other in the street and you don’t know the proper social distance, imagine that there’s a Central American tapir between you and the other person.”


The Federal Government has rolled out an extensive suite of advertising materials and although the message reflects those of the examples discussed, the approach has been more conservative. They came after widespread criticism was mounted against the government for offering confusing and inconsistent messaging in its official public health advice. Perhaps the strategy sought to provide a serious, no-nonsense response to placate a public it risked losing in the early stages of the crisis.

One common denominator that links all these campaigns is the use of imagery to make their point. It is believed the brain processes an image 60,000 times faster than a line of text, indeed, 90% of information transmitted to the brain is visual. At a time when the public needs to digest information quickly and act on it, it is no surprise governments and organisations are turning to strong imagery as a vehicle to success.


Final word from our Culture Manager

I was scrolling delicately with my paw through Twitter last week and came across an hilarious exchange between the official Twitter account of Pope Francis and an account dedicated to bat PR.

Frankly, Pope vs bat social media spat is absolutely the bizarre plot twist to this crisis we all need right now.

There have been some major interventions by the papacy throughout history. I think back several thousand dog years to Pope Urban II’s influential speech in 1095 that gave rise to the First Crusade.

I wonder if centuries from now, history students will give Pope Francis’ batty Twitter interventions the same level of prominence as those of his predecessors. Perhaps between that and calls from the President of the United States to inject ourselves with disinfectant, they’ll just turn the page in agreement that “2020 was lit wasn’t it?”

But while we share a lol, there is an important dynamic at play here that we should all be aware of.

I’ve been struck – even appalled – recently to see how COVID-19 has facilitated a rise in xenophobia. I’ve heard reports of Chinese people experiencing hostility abroad due to the virus and actions of their government.

In fact, it’s something we’ve seen throughout history; people being attacked for circumstances beyond their control.

So, in this case, I’m going to stick up for a fellow animal and I urge anyone in the Vatican’s press office reading this to bring the nasty campaign against bats to an end, it’s not their fault.

Now is the time to be kind to each other everyone, otherwise we won’t like the look of society when we come out the other side!