An Economic Approach to Pro-Mask Messaging

Why do we need everyone to be on board with mask-wearing? Mask wearing will help us move from a blanket mitigation response to COVID to a much more targeted & focused containment response. Mitigation is, “Stay at home, shut everything down.” Containment is, “Be out and about, shop at your local businesses, get the kids back in school while maintaining distance, wearing masks, practicing good hygiene.”  

One of the things that’s been frustrating to watch as the COVID-19 pandemic has unfolded in the U.S. is our culture’s inability to come together to fight a common threat and move from mitigation to containment. While a large percentage of us have in fact come together, with this infectious disease, I’m not sure that enough of us have come together to be successful. People who resist wearing masks are feeding the disease. And if they resist taking a vaccine when it is ready, that will feed the disease, too.

Some studies show that there is a correlation between income and one’s willingness to wear a mask (link below). People with more income are more likely to engage in self protective behavior. Therefore, if we are going to have effective messaging around mask wearing, we need to understand this disparity. Economic uncertainty creates fear and my hunch is that fear drives poor decision making in an attempt to regain feelings of control and safety.

Public Service Announcements (PSAa) and memes have failed to convince non masks wearers to wear them. I’ve observed at least four unsuccessful approaches to pro-mask marketing:

  • Appeal to Reason
  • Appeal to Science
  • Appeal to Shame
  • Appeal to Community

Appeal to Reason. This appeal uses analogies referring to current common behavior for safety, such as “If people wear seatbelts, then people should wear masks.” 


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Appeal to Science. Since science is a rational discipline, this appeal is a subset of the appeal to reason. Appeals to Science rely on peer-reviewed journal articles and quantifiable data. 

The problem with these two approaches is that resisters often perceive this issue of wearing masks as an emotional issue, not a rational one. All the data in the world isn’t going to change their minds.

The Shaming Appeal and The Community Appeal are more emotional than scientific and rational approaches, but they haven’t worked either. The Shame Appeal is when resistors are called selfish or stupid, or when they are compared to earlier generations who sacrificed a lot more than the inconvenience of wearing a mask. But there’s a solid body of research on the mixed outcomes of shame as a motivator. 

What really surprises me is the failure of the Community Appeal. This appeals to our sense of being in this crisis all together, and that our individual behavior affects the whole community. But this fails too and that surprises me because I know some resistors that have grocery clerks and nurses in their friend and family circles, but for some reason that fact doesn’t appear to work as a reason to wear masks. 

But what about an Economic Appeal?

If the underlying fear that mask resistors have is driven by low income and economic uncertainty, then being told that they can get back to work or go shopping might soothe that fear. Perhaps the message about masks should be something like, “Wearing a mask shows that I support the businesses in my community and that I care about reopening the economy.”



Some Americans are More Likely ….to Wear Masks, Market Watch June 2020

From Mitigation to Containment, JAMA April 2020

Goldman Sachs says Mask Wearing Could Save the U.S. 1 Trillion Dollars , Forbes June 2020