Research into advertising messaging in Illinois suggests face masks might be able to borrow some of the hard-won lifesaving cache seat belts built up over the last six decades. Indeed, the struggle towards national acceptance of seat belts can teach us a lot about how people are reacting to face masks, and hopefully, allow us to get towards mass mask-wearing more quickly.
A new study on effective face mask messaging in Illinois by Civis Analytics found that 92 percent of respondents were more likely to wear a mask after view advertising comparing masks to seat belts, three percent more than those who did not, according to Bloomberg.
About 92% of respondents who were shown the message that compared masks to helmets and seatbelts were likely to wear a mask, compared to 89% of the respondents in the control group. A 3 percentage point increase may not seem like much, but Civis says messages like these tend to have a lower effect for issues that people have already been highly exposed to. “People have heard so much about it that their opinions are strongly held,” Crystal Son, health care analytics director at Civis, said in an email. “Given the saturation of messaging around Covid and masks, a 3 [percentage point] treatment effect is both statistically significant and meaningful.”
At the moment apparently only 66 percent of Illinois residents say they wear a mask every time they leave the house. That’s much higher than the national average of 44 percent, according to a Gallup poll. And that’s in a state that will penalize businesses for not enforcing mask-wearing on their premises and recently made it a federal offense to assault workers enforcing such rules.
They’re serious about masks in Illinois but are still have a long way to go to get even close to seat belt compliance levels. Today, Americans are 90 percent compliant with wearing seat belts, that’s up from just 14 percent as recently as the ’80s, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Seat belts saved 15,000 lives in 2016 but could have saved 2,500 more if compliance was 100 percent.
While the National Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act required automakers to install seat belts way back in the ’60s, there was nothing requiring their use by drivers and passengers. Though it was carmakers who were the loudest opponents of seat belts, Americans had individual reasons for not wearing them that sound a lot like those who are against masks today. CNN has a good rundown of the two main arguments used then and today:
Dubious scientific claims: Like opponents of masks, carmakers and lobbyists touted opaque claims that wearing a seat belt could cause more harm than good.
They perpetuated the baseless idea of being “thrown clear,” or tossed away from an accident when you’re ejected from a car instead of being strapped inside. Being “thrown clear” of an accident was considered safer than being trapped inside a vehicle.
People who refuse masks tout similarly unproven theories, like that masks are ineffective and obstruct breathing, or that states are inflating the number of deaths they report to make the pandemic seem worse than it is.
Issues of freedom & fear: Seat belts were viewed as an infringement of personal liberties by some — a familiar argument against masks.
Cars represented freedom. Driving was supposed to be liberating, not restrictive (or at least that’s how carmakers were marketing their products), Albert said. The famed automaker Harley Earl once said he designed cars so drivers could have a “little vacation for a while.”
Auto companies feared the vacation would end once seat belts were installed. Gone would be the romance of driving, replaced with fear and caution about the perils of the open road.
It took two decades before the first seat belt laws were introduced and there is still no national seat belt law, though New Hampshire is the lone state without any seat belt law.
Clearly, the best way to get masks gain widespread acceptance is to hammer home their health benefits while making them ubiquitous. Laws preventing entry into restaurants and businesses are a start, but it shifts the responsibility to business owners, not individuals. Seat belt adherence really rose with campaigns like “Click It Or Ticket.” The quickest way to get the maskless crowd on board is to make it a little financially painful for them, which means passing and enforcing face mask laws. With enough carrots and sticks, we can hopefully speed up the mass adoption of these lifesaving devices.