An Image You Won’t Forget

by Sir John Hargrave on 04/16/2020

As bad as this Coronacrisis is, the Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918 was worse.

It took the lives of young and old, healthy and sick. It was faster and deadlier than COVID-19, and the illness was more gruesome. One physician at an Army camp outside Boston wrote a colleague:

“It is only a matter of a few hours then until death comes … It is horrible. One can stand to see one, two or twenty men die, but to see these poor devils dropping like flies … We have been averaging about 100 deaths per day … It takes special trains to carry away the dead. For several days there were no coffins and the bodies piled up something fierce. It beats any sight they ever had in France after a battle … Goodbye old pal, God be with you till we meet again.”

Like Coronavirus, one of the ways that Spanish Flu spread was through droplets expelled when people sneezed. The New York government began to put out public health bulletins, which featured an image that you just can’t unsee:

How disease is spread image
Courtesy New York City Municipal Archives
We could have a team of advertising agency copywriters shooting back Red Bull and absinthe for two weeks on a public health campaign, and they could not do better than Spray Sneezer.

The guy with the sprinkler-spray nose, spewing his Spanish Flu all over the place, with the headline SNEEZE BUT DON’T SCATTER. It’s incredibly effective. It’s communication gold.

In fact, it’s better than the recent 3D model from The New York Times, showing how sneezes spread.

Let’s examine why Spray Sneezer works so well, and how we can apply it to our CoronaCrisis today.


The Ingredients of Successful Communication

People are busy.

Nobody has time to wade through medical journals, or your 20-page briefing on the state of healthcare. The only thing people will spend hours of time consuming is Tiger King. If it involves big cat breeding and a guy with a mullet, then we’re all in. If it involves 100,000 human lives (so far), we haven’t got time.

So use:

1) A simple, memorable image. A guy with a spraycan for a nose is not aesthetically pleasing, but that’s the point. You want to make him as ugly as possible. Fire that baby right into the amygdala. The image has to spray itself all over our brain.

Powerful images pack a lot of punch. Rosie the Riveter got women to understand they were an essential part of the war effort. Tank Man is a symbol of individual power vs. the state. Even simple emojis cram a lot of information into a tiny graphic:

Laughing emoji

“I find that so amusing that I am shaking
in uncontrollable laughter.”

Heart eyed emoji
“I am so deliriously in love in this early
stage of our relationship that it colors everything I see.”

Head explosion emoji
“I am so overwhelmed by rage that I can only
express my feelings through this colorful graphic.”

2) A simple, catchy catchphrase. SNEEZE BUT DON’T SCATTER really works, because it uses a few tried-and-true formulas.

– Start with the same sounds.
Research shows that people remember phrases better when they are alliterative, or “start with the same sounds.” Look at our CoCo website, with sound-starting slogans like “Humans Helping Humans” and “Slow the Spread.” (Even CoCo is an alliteration.)

– Encouraging one but not the other. SNEEZE BUT DON’T SCATTER is better than COVER YOUR MOUTH or (in the age of Coronavirus) COUGH INTO YOUR ELBOW. Prohibiting behavior is a killjoy, especially if you really need to sneeze. SNEEZE IN YOUR SLEEVE would be a much better catchphrase today (#SleeveSneeze).

– Keep it short. Three words is ideal. Four is doable. Five is too many. (Think of all the best ad slogans: Just Do It, I’m Lovin’ It, Don’t Be Evil.) Each of our CoCo briefs is four words or less. Most of them use some combination of these techniques: “Build Not Blame,” “Anxiety Into Action,” “Spirit of Service.”


To recap, the formula is:

A simple, memorable image + a simple, catchy catchphrase = a viral idea

Or in the case of COVID-19, an antiviral idea.

Now you have the formula for the idea vaccine. Use it.


5 Business Best Practices During the Coronacrisis:

> Find “simple, memorable images” to drive your point home. (A picture is worth a thousand words.)

> Find “simple, catchy catchphrases” to make them easy to remember. (A catchphrase is repeated a thousand times.)

> Test out different images + different catchphrases to see what sticks. Experiment.

> Simplify your communication. Keep reducing until you get to the essence of the message.

> Spend 10% of your time helping others.