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On 10 February 2020 the world didn’t even have a name for the strange new virus that was first observed in Wuhan the previous December. The World Health Organization would formally classify it as Covid-19 the following day. In Europe the disease seemed little more than a vague concern, just a few dozen confirmed cases scattered across the continent. In Switzerland there were none, as far as anyone knew. Nevertheless, it was on 10 February that Switzerland’s Federal Office of Public Health (foph) decided to get ahead of the massive messaging challenge that it feared was looming.

foph approached four advertising agencies for help with whatever was about to descend. Three declined. The one that was willing and able to accept the task was Rod Kommunikation of Zürich. Rod already had a relationship with foph, for which it had previously crafted an hiv-awareness campaign. This time, however, Rod would need to move faster, across uncharted terrain. On 19 February the agency was given an awesome responsibility and a gruesome deadline.

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“We had one week to develop some solutions and to present them,” says David Schärer, Rod’s founding partner. “We had to call back creatives from holiday and ask clients whether they were fine with us postponing projects.” It soon became more than just one week’s work, however. As Schärer recalls, Rod’s team of about a dozen worked day and night through February, March, April and May, weekends included, as the situation evolved. “It was an intense time,” he says.

Early discussions were about general tone. “We looked at some artwork and thought that it looked too much like advertising,” says Schärer. “And some of it looked likely to panic people. We had to find the right thing in the middle. It had to look official, urgent and informative but not frightening. It’s a fine line.”

There were missteps. There was an idea that riffed on the Rütlischwur – the mythical oath taken in the early 14th century by representatives of Switzerland’s three original cantons. The swearing of the Rütlischwur is a famous Swiss image and Schärer’s team fiddled for a while with the national heroes it features pledging obeisance to the new hygiene rules, before binning it as “too cheesy, too funny, too ironic”. The eventual slogan – “Protect yourself and others” – was arrived at via, “This is how we protect ourselves”, which was once, “This is how we protect Switzerland”. It was decided to emphasise personal responsibility for the collective. A two-hour conversation between Rod and the foph concerned whether one particular line of copy was best served by an “and” or an “or”.

Some inspiration was sought from elsewhere. Schärer says that Rod borrowed the idea of putting a date on every new image, to emphasise the currency of the message, from Singapore’s coronavirus offensive. The campaign was updated over autumn with evolving slogans: “The coronavirus is still here”; “Go on and do it”; and, as infections rose with the approach of winter, the more cautionary “Phase orange”.

“We worked hardest on the colours,” says Schärer. “That’s really the main intellectual and creative thing that we implemented. The first colour was yellow. Then red, to announce physical distancing. Then grey, for staying at home. Then pink, to recommend working at home. Then blue, to promote the Swiss coronavirus app. The colours aren’t an alarm system, more a semiotic that fits into the wider context. So for contact tracing it’s blue – visible, serious but not too gloomy.”

“Every campaign needs a dramaturgy. To keep people’s attention, you need to pause sometimes”

foph, at time of writing, has spent about chf14m (€13m) on Rod’s campaign, which, pending a definitive end to the pandemic, is regarded as ongoing. On the other side of the relationship is Adrian Kammer, head of Public Health Information and Campaigns at foph. Kammer, like Schärer, remembers long days, especially early on, when the first calls between the two took place at 08.00; the last at after 22.00. Members of Rod’s team adapted material as new information arrived.

It is hardly unheard of in the advertising world for agencies to sigh that clients don’t know what they want. But in this instance, the client, like everyone else in the world, wasn’t entirely sure what they were even dealing with.

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“We thought it through in phases,” says Kammer. “The first was hygienic, such as washing hands and coughing into the elbow. Then physical distancing, then stay at home, then masks on public transport, then working from home, and so on. We knew from previous situations, such as the h1n1 [influenza] campaign in 2009, that pictograms and simple messages are very important.”

As foph saw it, the campaign had to perform two tasks: information and motivation. The latter, Kammer acknowledges, has become more and more of a challenge as the pandemic has continued. foph and Rod agreed all along that shock doesn’t work. The animating idea behind the campaign was that people want solid information about what the hazard is and what they can do. “I wanted to avoid panic,” says Kammer. “So the language needed to be sympathetic. But I didn’t want a classic advertising or marketing campaign. We weren’t trying to sell a product. I wanted a simple, clear and intelligent information campaign.”

foph monitored the traction of the campaign via its website, tracking what it was that visitors downloaded and what questions were asked. It commissioned external market research to find out whether the campaign was landing and, crucially, if behaviours were changing. It found, astonishingly, that after only three weeks of the campaign, more than 90 per cent of Swiss people had seen it, understood it and were applying the information to their lives. “I’ve never seen such results,” says Kammer, although he concedes that, what with one thing and another, almost everyone else had stopped advertising.

“I wanted to avoid panic. I wanted a simple, clear and intelligent information campaign”

The tricky part, all parties agree, is maintaining that impact. “The longer that the pandemic goes on, the more difficult our job gets,” says Kammer. He perceives a twin-track ahead: a rational approach that distributes information and an emotional approach that appeals to civic responsibility and solidarity. Recent ads, says Kammer, have a message that he describes as one of “increasing urgency”. foph is conducting a study to see how Swiss people are experiencing the pandemic and its restrictions, so the tone can be adjusted if needed. “Every campaign needs a dramaturgy,” says Schärer. “To keep people’s attention you need to pause sometimes. Attention is like a muscle; you need to let it relax. We saw before summer that people had coronavirus fatigue, so we switched the campaign a little bit. We got rid of the pictograms and developed a new message: a yellow sticker with the virus in green, just to remind everyone that it hasn’t gone away.”

Not everybody is impressed. Professor Arne Scheuermann, of the Leiter Institute of Design Research in Bern, says that there was an amount of muttering in the more rarefied strata of Switzerland’s graphic-design community that Rod’s simple but effective campaign was somehow unworthy of the nation’s illustrious design heritage. But Scheuermann thinks that these critics have missed the point.

“The pictograms are maybe not very beautiful,” he says. “But they deal with broad themes effectively and can be understood by people with low visual literacy. The crucial point where healthcare campaigns are concerned is not beauty but efficiency. This campaign was put together quickly and became a vivid part of public discussion in a short time. I can’t recall a health campaign in Switzerland having a bigger impact.”

Are you gonna go my way?

Much has been made of “the Swedish way” and “the New Zealand way” when it comes to handling the pandemic. But the Swiss way deserves a closer look too. Rather than impose rigid quarantine rules and close borders as the Kiwis have done, or experiment with an almost completely hands-off approach as the Swedes did, the Swiss tried to strike a balance. By working to ensure that the population was aware of the latest health guidelines and imposing light-touch restrictions, the Federal Council has attempted to control the spread of infections while also allowing citizens to maintain their freedom. As we go to press, cases are climbing in the country – but Switzerland has so far managed to avoid a second winter lockdown.

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