Positive TV messaging about coronavirus safety protocols and vaccines in both scripted and unscripted series can help save lives by persuading ambivalent and resistant viewers to follow recommended public health guidelines, according to a virtual panel discussion presented by USC Annenberg Norman Lear Center’s Hollywood, Health & Society, in partnership with the WGAE and WGAW, on Wednesday.

“Depicting behavior that can be modeled and ways to talk about prevention and protection, without getting into fights about masks, can raise awareness and encourage safer practices,” said Kate Folb, director, Hollywood, Health & Society, during a virtual panel discussion on how Hollywood projects can present and promote safe behavior amid the pandemic on Wednesday.

Currently, coronavirus-related deaths are projected to reach more than half million by March, spurring the urgency to engage Hollywood to spread a “Be A Protector” public health message, according to the panelists.

“Our goal is to help content creators address COVID-19 topics accurately, and to represent safe prevention behavior in their content,” said Folb.

The “Be A Protector” messaging comes from the Protector Coalition, a nonprofit coronavirus public health collaboration between Hollywood, Health and Society; University of Michigan; Yale School of Public Health and the Entertainment Advisory Cultique. Its creator resource guide has informed the current National Institute of Health industry guidelines, and the goal is that screenwriters and showrunners will avoid traditional “mask up” or “get the vaccine” messages in their projects, as those messages can sometimes backfire with resistant people and fuel divisiveness.

Instead, the panelists preached that television scenes and dialogue should strive to affirm hesitant groups by educating them and emphasizing their humanity. This came out of a study from the University of Michigan that found that people care more about their loved ones than their personal freedoms, meaning that shame-filled messages can increase resistance to adopting COVID-safe behavior, while positive messaging, such as empathy and being a “protector” for one’s loved ones, can reduce resistance.

“Our research suggests that the idea of protecting a loved one motivates people to make safe choices without violating their sense of independence,” said Dr. Lawrence An from the University of Michigan. “People who respond negatively to being ‘told’ what to do are much less likely — by over 50% — to routinely wear a mask. However, at the same time, concern for others increases mask wearing, especially among those who report greater negativity.”

Additionally, shows can tailor their messaging to certain groups of people. Dr. Kenneth Resnicow from the University of Michigan School of Public Health Communications said series should be aware of race when addressing vaccine hesitancy, including the prevalence of “anti-first” sentiment from some Black community members as a result of the Tuskegee experiment and centuries-long unethical treatment by the health care system. An added that screenwriters should consider recognizing the “protector” narrative, individuals who are protecting loved ones who may not be safeguarding themselves.

The “Be A Protector” initiative was inspired by the 1988 effort led by NBC’s then-president Brandon Tartikoff, who partnered with Harvard’s School of Public Health to curb alcohol-related car accidents. Together with large studios, such as ABC, Tartikoff piloted the “Designated Driver” positive messaging within dialogue and characters across more than 160 shows.