It’s not black and white
What we can learn from the pandemic rainbow
About the author
Emma Breger prepared this article as part of a CIPR Professional PR Diploma assignment while studying with PR Academy.
Early last year, as the world turned upside-down, children’s rainbow artwork started appearing in front windows. The trend is thought to have originated in Bari, Italy in March 2020. As lockdown hit and more schools began to close, families wanted to raise the spirits of children stuck at home. Rainbow artwork was accompanied by a slogan of reassurance: ‘Andra tutto bene’ – everything will be all right.
The message soon spread around the world. In the UK, the rainbow became a symbol to celebrate key workers, and a strong connection between rainbows and the NHS grew.
The moments when the United Kingdom has come together to applaud its care and essential workers will be remembered as an expression of our national spirit; and its symbol will be the rainbows drawn by children.’ (The Queen’s speech, April 2020)
The power of symbols
The word symbol comes from the Greek words, syn, together, and ballein, to throw. One thing representing another. Our relationship with symbols is complex. The sociologist Max Weber described human beings as ‘meaning makers.’ We assign meanings to words, shapes, and objects to help us make sense of the world.
The study of symbols is about understanding people. Symbols are a visual representation of our beliefs, values, and attitudes. Symbols can connect like-minded people. For example, religious symbols can help people identify who is in their community and who is not.
Symbols are one of the most effective ways we communicate. Almost anything could be used as a symbol, but not all symbols will have universally recognised meanings.
Since symbols are cultural constructs, they only make sense when we understand the context in which they are used. A famous example is the swastika. For millennia, a symbol of good fortune, now, it is a reminder of the atrocities committed during the Second World War.
We also use symbols which no longer make sense. In 2019 when a young Twitter user in Japan posted: “Why is the SAVE ICON a ‘vending machine (with) a Beverage dispensed?” the post went viral, leaving many Twitter users feeling nostalgic, reminiscing about floppy disks.
The rainbow has a rich symbolic history
Religions and cultures throughout the world have used the rainbow to convey various meanings. In Judaism, the rainbow is a reminder of the Divine covenant. In Hinduism, it is Indra’s bow. For Buddhists, the rainbow symbolises the highest state before enlightenment. Rainbows have frequently been used in art, literature, and film to evoke feelings of hope.
The Pride rainbow flag, designed by Gilbert Baker in 1978, was intended to unify the LGBTQ+ community and remains deeply ingrained in LGBTQ+ identity today. During the pandemic, the Pride and NHS rainbows seemed to morph together. With Pride celebrations cancelled due to pandemic restrictions, some brands re-purposed rainbow merchandise to celebrate the NHS instead.
Many were deeply concerned that the Pride flag was being usurped. For some, it felt like a threat to LGBTQ+ identity. This illustrates how careful we need to be when selecting and using symbols.
Let’s have a closer look at why the rainbow had such a powerful impact
The UK’s Behavioural Insights Team (BIT) also known as The Nudge Unit, was established in 2010 by the Cameron government. It works globally in partnership with governments, local authorities, businesses, and charities to solve policy problems. Projects have been diverse, from tackling tuberculosis in Moldova to boosting early tax returns in Indonesia. The key philosophy is to use small changes to create big impact.
The BIT’s EAST Framework arms policymakers with a simple, pragmatic approach, identifying four principles to apply behavioural insights: make it Easy, Attractive, Social, and Timely.
Using this framework, we can reflect how the rainbow captured the UK’s imagination and take away lessons for future campaigns.
The task was easy and accessible. With children being home schooled, and more of us working from home, activities became localised. A poll shows many adults in the UK took up a new hobby during the pandemic to support their mental health. The rainbow tapped into the DIY ethos during lockdown.
There is a long tradition of craft activism, as a way of channelling negative emotion into something positive. For example, in 2017 the knitted Pussyhat became a symbol of female solidarity in protest against the incoming Trump administration.
The message was also simple and resonated with the audience. In his treatise Rhetoric, Aristotle identified three key elements for persuasive communication: ethos, logos, and pathos. Ethos refers to the credibility of the messenger and logos refers to the argument of the message. Pathos is the relationship between the message and the emotional state of the audience. The symbol of the rainbow triggered an emotional response during the pandemic.
Ronald Smith takes this idea further in his book Strategic Planning for Public Relations. He describes both positive and negative appeals. Positive appeals tap into feelings of love, virtue, or humour. Negative appeals tap into feelings of guilt or fear. The rainbow was a positive appeal.
We are attracted to colour. There have been numerous studies on the effect colours have on our emotions. Colour can also influence our behaviour, for example, green is often associated with ‘go’. If the rainbow had been black and white, it probably would’ve had less impact, both in terms of how it made us feel and our desire to engage with it.
Petty and Cacioppo’s Elaboration Likelihood Model (ELM) explains this further. The model identifies two routes to persuasion – the central and the peripheral – and the appropriate route will depend on the motivations of the audience. The central route is effective when the audience is ready to carefully consider a message. Whereas, the peripheral route, suits an audience already overloaded with information, with little time or energy to receive the message, much like how a lot of us were feeling during the pandemic.
The peripheral route uses symbols or cues, to capture attention. The rainbow attracted attention because it was colourful and novel. We weren’t expecting to see rainbows, so we took notice, and absorbed the message.
The rainbow trend spread through our social networks, and the rainbow itself helped create a sense of community.
Robert Cialdini’s research on how hotels influence guests to reuse towels, demonstrates how the Social Proof Principle can work in practice. His principle holds that we are heavily influenced by others. We are even more inclined to follow the crowd when we’re uncertain how to behave, such as during a global pandemic.
In lockdown, when social interactions were limited, we yearned for social connection and a sense of community. The Office of National Statistics Opinion and Lifestyle Survey showed that at the beginning of the pandemic, around 8 in 10 adults in the UK thought people were doing more to help others, and among key workers there was an even greater feeling of community spirit. Maybe the rainbow played a role in this.
In the words of Malcom Gladwell, ‘the tipping point is that magic moment when an idea, trend, or social behaviour crosses a threshold, tips, and spreads like wildfire.’
Never underestimate the importance of timing.
People’s priorities, moods, and motivations are greatly affected by context. In the UK, the rainbow offered optimism, a sense of solidarity and community spirit at a time of crisis. This was reinforced by the Thursday evening clap for carers ritual introduced at the start of lockdown.
A recent study from Boston University shows that optimists live longer, with the most optimistic having an 11-15% longer life span. The rainbow became big business with many brands capitalizing on the optimism economy. Rainbow inspired fashion, homeware and groceries filled the shops.
Brands such as Louis Vuitton , Cartier UK and M&S embraced the rainbow as part of their CSR. Today, many businesses are recognising the need to respond to rapidly changing social and cultural attitudes. Globally, the public want to see organisations be socially responsible. According to the 2021 Edelman Trust Barometer, 86% of the public want CEOs to speak out on societal issues.
The rainbow moved from the home to the high street. The influence of symbols is clear, but this also prompts questions around the ethical use of symbols, particularly if the initial intention was not commercial.
What can communicators take away from this?
This case study has reminded us about the power of symbols, and how something simple can have a profound effect.
Communicators need to be careful when using symbols. Not all symbols will have universally recognised meanings, and meanings can change over time. This means that not everyone will respond in the same way, and what has worked in the past may not necessarily work in the future. Understanding your audience and how messages will be interpreted, is therefore key.
Retrospectively, we can see how the rainbow during the pandemic incorporated the features of the EAST Framework: it was easy, attractive, social, and timely. In the right context, communicators can use this tool to help develop campaigns which aim to change behaviours.
Small changes create big impact.