Packed bars and clubs at Midtown are now covered with colorful posters and stickers reminding students to keep their masks on while being social.
Students at The Agency, UF’s student-led marketing firm, paired up with the city to launch a marketing campaign aimed to encourage students to wear masks in public inside bars.
The Healthy Gainesville Initiative was presented to and approved by the City Commission Jan. 21 and cost the city $87,500. The funds paid for research and development of marketing materials such as posters, masks and floor stickers to encourage students to mask up because of concerns from city officials about masses of unmasked students at bars during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Sammie Green, a 21-year-old UF telecommunications senior, led the team of 10 students through its research phase and into the city presentation.
Green said the campaign’s main focus is reaching students through humor and a message that resonates by using positive reinforcement and social norm psychology to encourage students to wear masks in an effective, non-judgmental way.
She said her favorite slogan the team came up with was, “Have a toast, but not too close,” and “Make Happy Hour Happier,” coming in as a close second.
As of Feb. 8, the program distributed 150 posters, 190 masks and about 80 floor decals to Rowdy Reptile, Fat Daddy's, JJ's Tavern, Downtown Fats and other businesses, all plastered with slogans the student team developed.
City officials specifically asked for posters that could cover the Midtown and downtown area, Green said. She added that her team will continue to meet with the city as the campaign evolves, though there is no set date to meet.
“We're excited to see our materials in the field and continuing to work with the city,” she said. “We're also hoping to have more of an idea of what that increase of communication efforts looks like in the coming weeks.”
At a city commission meeting Feb. 4, Gainesville Mayor Lauren Poe asked commissioners to wait a few weeks before enacting an emergency mask order to allow time for the UF marketing campaign to start working.
He said he worried a mask mandate might jeopardize the cooperation between the city and local businesses. But the commission voted to move forward on the order.
“I believe the Healthy Gainesville Initiative is our best option for increasing positive social behavior,” Poe said. “I think we owe it to our community to see if that actually works.”
The cooperation between the city and UF on a mask campaign started last year, Ann Searight Christiano, director of the UF Center for Public Interest Communications, said.
In October, Searight Christiano got a call from city manager Lee Feldman, who asked the center to create a recommendation on how to get students to wear masks in public.
She said news coverage of bars reopening at full capacity was one of the reasons Feldman called.
“I guess the pictures had just come out from the previous weekend — the long lines outside of the bars — and he was really concerned about the issue from a health and safety perspective,” she said.
The UF Center for Public Interest Communications rounded up seven UF researchers from fields including behavioral economics, social psychology and sociology. The center, The Agency and the researchers sat down for a brainstorming session in October and came up with a campaign that targets bar goers as they enter a business.
Searight Christiano said when the team interviewed Midtown bartenders, it found a common issue was people pulling their masks down when ordering a drink.
The Agency team came up with a mask for bartenders to wear that says, “Mask and You Shall Receive.”
“So, just to send that cue of normalizing, ‘Wear your mask and you're going to get your order quicker,’” Searight Christiano said.
The problem in Midtown isn’t that people don't have masks, but that they just aren’t wearing them, she said.
“It wasn't a denial of facts, it wasn't an unwillingness to engage in the social behaviors,” she said. “It's just they needed some reminder there to kind of nudge them to engage in those healthier behaviors.”
This positive nudge is what sets the marketing campaign apart from current mask posters and signs, Matt Sheehan, the managing director of the UF center, said.
“This isn't the university telling people what to do, this isn't the city telling people what to do,” Sheehan said. “But we're working with the proprietors to ensure that if people are socializing, they're doing it safely.”
He said the UF team hopes to meet with downtown and Midtown businesses to get an update on the campaign’s effectiveness.
Contact Jack Prator at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @jack_prator.
Jack is a UF journalism sophomore covering the Gainesville City Commission. If he's not in a hammock at the plaza he is probably watching the Queen's Gambit for the fifth time.