What do you expect to see when you scroll TikTok? Perhaps a Californian teen gyrating to Doja Cat, or someone singing a sea shanty. Maybe you’ll discover “private school TikTok” and fall down a rabbit hole of posh kids showing off their boarding school dormitories.
What you probably won’t anticipate is a video of an elderly man wearing an oxygen mask, struggling to breathe after being admitted to hospital with coronavirus. But this is what young people in the UK are currently confronted with when they open the video sharing app, thanks to a new advertising campaign from the government.
Launched by the Cabinet Office in late January, the COVID-19 awareness adverts were developed by communications agency MullenLowe, and filmed at NHS hospitals in Hampshire.
At the time, roughly 38,000 hospital beds in England were taken up by COVID-19 patients and the death toll in the UK was more than 95,000. A YouGov poll that month found that the majority of Brits thought that people were not taking the current lockdown as seriously as the first. Setting out to tackle this apparent complacency, the ads were designed to urge people to stay home and prevent the spread of infection.
As well as TikTok, the adverts feature on Facebook and Instagram, and in traditional television and billboard slots. In the TV ad, NHS staff and patients urge people to avoid travel and socialising. A poster seen on bus shelters around the UK also shows a man in an oxygen mask, and asks viewers to “look him in the eyes and tell him you really can’t work from home”.
The versions of the ads that run on the internet are a little different. While the TV ad uses soft music and shows patients’ faces without a filter, the TikTok video appears to use one that changes eye colour and washes out skin tone. It also plays sombre music and zooms suddenly on the patient’s face, followed by a variation of the words: “Around one in three people who have COVID-19 have no symptoms and are spreading it without knowing. Are you absolutely positive you're not one of them?”
It’s hard not to draw conclusions from the government’s decision to run these versions of its ads on a platform popular with millennials and Generation Z. Figures suggest that almost a quarter of 15- to 25-year-olds in the UK use TikTok, and 69 percent of the app’s user base is aged between 13 and 24 years old. The overwhelming majority of young people understand the seriousness of coronavirus and are following lockdown rules. What many now want to know is why they the government is targeting them with such distressing ads.
Eighteen-year-old Niamh saw the video on TikTok for the first time in late January, and found it upsetting.
“We’re being simultaneously told that we are ‘generation COVID’ with so much uncertainty around the rest of our lives, and also being told that the deaths of our loved ones are our own fault,” says Niamh who, along with the other young people interviewed for this piece, asked to use her first name. “Adverts like this immediately make me feel guilty, despite the fact I have not broken any of the restrictions. I understand how they are trying to be emotive, yet there are many people who have lost family and friends to coronavirus, and it is impossible to grieve when being shown distressing images with an accusatory tone.”
This isn't the first time that the government has targeted young people as the supposed spreaders of coronavirus. Despite evidence that shows young people are just as compliant of lockdown measures as older generations, ministers have called out “socialising by people in their 20s and 30s” to blame for past spikes in infection rates. In September, Matt Hancock told young people not to “kill granny”, and again shamed “affluent young people” as the reason behind a sudden rise in coronavirus infections.
As well as the implied blame, young people have questioned the mental health implications of running such evocative ads on a platform known for being a respite from pandemic news. Nicola, 20, a student at the University of Bristol, uses TikTok as a form of escapism. The first time she saw the government’s coronavirus video was after finishing her exams.
“Considering I've just made a big sacrifice myself by staying home for exams and doing my whole uni course online for a year, it was just like a kick in the teeth,” she says.
Anna, 14, who lives in Liverpool, is one of many teenagers who uses TikTok on a daily basis and sees the ads regularly. “They’re a bit intimidating,” she says. “The setting’s really dark.”
John Drury, professor of social psychology at the University of Sussex and member of an advisory sub-group of SAGE, describes these adverts as “fear campaigns” – much like the “Don’t Die of Ignorance” TV ad run by the Department of Health during the AIDS crisis, which featured a large tombstone. The problem is that these types of ads can actually disengage people.
“It didn't stop them from doing things, it just focused on something bad, something scary,” Prof Drury says of the AIDS ads. “It didn't give them a practical solution. What did work instead was getting the community to participate and to actively engage.”
Previous coronavirus messaging from the government has taken a community-focused approach, including a July advert from the Department of Health and Social Care that featured footage of football matches and weddings, encouraging people to get tested in order to “get back to the things we love”.
“The focus on other people actually is a better predictor of adherence because we actually care more about other people than we do about our own personal safety sometimes,” says Prof Drury. “So, that move was a good one.”
Rhianne, 21, based in Northamptonshire agrees that past government campaigns have been more helpful than the current TikTok ads. She liked the “Hands, Face, Space” messaging released in September because it provided useful advice.
“I much prefer to see facts or easy to follow instructions, rather than a guilt trip,” she says, describing the current ad on TikTok as a “jump scare”.
The government’s decision to run a campaign that uses fear may seem confusing, given the apparent success of advice-focused ads among young people. But Prof Drury says that teens and millennials are an easy target for the government, given that they are not a demographic that usually votes Conservative.
This feels particularly unfair when you consider the fact that young people are suffering the worst effects of the pandemic, compared to older generations. “Young people are sacrificing more, because older people want to stay at home and younger people want to go out,” Prof Drury adds.
John, 18 and based in Liverpool, is not a fan of the TikTok ads for precisely this reason.
“It angers me that the government can so easily throw the weight of 114,000 deaths on our shoulders,” he says. “It’s easier to blame people who don’t have a large voice in society.”
A spokesperson for the Cabinet Office told VICE World News: “Our public information campaigns have reached an estimated 95 percent of adults an average of 17 times, and internal data shows that our multi-channel communications approach is having a significant impact on people's behaviour.”
When asked about the effect of these adverts on young people’s mental health, they responded: “This has been an exceptionally difficult year and we are absolutely committed to supporting the mental wellbeing of children and young people through the pandemic.”
The young people VICE World News spoke to for this piece all agreed that public health advertising is crucial during a pandemic, but want the government to communicate messages that are practical and non-judgemental – and with less of the jump scares.