Visual language and vaccination

4 min readFeb 20, 2021

On any given day, we make thousands of decisions. From really small ones that we make without much thought, to more calculated choices like whether to get the COVID-19 vaccination.

Making these decisions comes down to cognitive biases that we are often not aware of. A central part of this is through communication: what we read, hear, say, and even see, can nudge us to make one decision over another.

Our brains are designed to process visual information faster and more efficiently than any other form of information, be it auditory or sensory. This is called the Picture Superiority Effect. This means that imagery is a powerful tool for capturing attention and evoking emotion — which can help drive action.

In our research on vaccine hesitancy and behavioural initiatives to offset this uncertainty, we explored the role that subliminal effects through visual language plays in nudging vaccine acceptance.

Here are some behavioural principles to consider:

1. Representative demographics

The people shown in the media should be representative of the South African population in terms of age, gender, race and lifestyle. This allows the audience to identify and relate to the imagery better and leverages the ‘social proof’ bias which is the likelihood of us doing something when “others like me” are also doing it.

2. Smiling and smizing

Smiling is the universal sign of happiness. Showing images of people smiling (not grimacing) helps to portray the vaccine process as easy and painless. Where smiling pictures are not possible (due to the mandatory wearing of masks), images should show people smizing (smiling with their eyes) and/or wearing masks which have smiles or happy images or linguistic cues printed on them.

3. Clothing colours

Colour plays a vitally important role in cognitive psychology. Colour has been shown to sway thinking, change moods, and drive actions. It’s therefore important to focus on clothing colours used in our vaccine imagery. Calming and trust colours such as soft blues, greens, pinks, white, greys, and even purples encourage peace of mind when we see them. Try avoid colours that represent urgency or danger and which can trigger negative emotions, such as the warmer tones of red, dark orange and black.

4. Safety and professionalism

With the concern linked to the COVID-19 vaccination, it’s important to continually emphasise safety and professionalism, both verbally and visually. Use imagery that shows the correct medical setting by including visual cues such as healthcare uniforms, surgical gloves, a stethoscope, masks and face visors, and a sanitised environment. Don’t focus too much on the needle or the syringe as this makes some people uncomfortable and fearful which means they may link the experience to pain or discomfort. Rather focus on the human elements where possible.

5. Unity and patriotism

Getting the COVID-19 vaccination is not just about keeping yourself safe, but also about protecting the country as a whole. Leverage this sense of unity and ubuntu by including patriotic elements in your images. This can be the South African flag, a framed picture of Nelson Mandela or Cyril Ramaphosa in the background of the image, or a visual of our national flowers, proteas. These work best as subtle, background elements.

6. Eyes

Our eyes are the “windows to the soul”. They have the ability to portray feelings, connection, and empathy and should be shown in your imagery. There is also the “watching-eye effect” which signifies that our actions are being watched and paid attention to. Psychological research continues to show that the visible presence of images depicting eyes nudges people towards slightly, but measurably, more honest, altruistic and pro-social behaviour.

Download high-res stock images according to these principles — free to use anywhere — with credit to BreadCrumbs Linguistics.




Head of Behavioural Insights at BreadCrumbs Linguistics | Background in exercise is medicine, behavioural science and statistics.