In the 13th century, a bunch of loosely connected tribes from the centre of Asia got bored with farming sheep, jumped on their horses and set off to conquer the world instead. For this bold plan to stand any chance of success, the tribes needed a way of communicating orders among each other; pretty tricky when most of them couldn't read, write or even speak the same language. So to get around these issues they introduced a unique system for communication among spread-out troops: they sang the orders.
Part of their military training, as well as horsemanship, archery and the ability to drink vast quantities of alcoholic milk, was to systematically learn a number of rhymes. Specific battle orders were designed to fit within these rhyming constructs so they could be easily understood, remembered and then passed on with accuracy. This method helped Genghis Khan and his Mongol chums create the largest land empire ever seen. Anyone who's ever played Risk knows how hard that is.
Don't shoot the messengers
Which, like everything else these days, brings us to Covid 19. Together with epidemiologist Professor Rod Jackson and strategist David Thomason, I recently wrote an article with some suggestions to help boost New Zealand's vaccination rate. Apparently, a few eyebrows were raised as to why advertising guys were getting involved with issues of public health. New Zealand already has many thousands of amateur epidemiologists spread over Facebook and talk-back radio, so what use would a couple of ad guys be?
It's a reasonable question, but I think it's important to remember that the way that the message is spread is almost as important as the message itself. We've seen terrible messages that are brilliantly communicated (Nazism, for example) and incredibly useful messages that would help us all live better lives fail because we never get to hear them.
The sizzle not the sausage
My vaccination education is somewhat below mediocre, however I do know that vaccines have proved successful since Edward Jenner first demonstrated their use in stopping the spread of Smallpox in 1796. This makes it extremely doubtful either that they were Bill Gates' idea, or that they kill everyone who gets injected; quite the opposite, in fact, as life expectancy has risen hugely since vaccines were introduced. Even knowing this smattering seems to put me quite high in the ranks of amateur epidemiologists and I anticipate a professorship from talk radio any day now.
I realise that there are those who are reluctant to take a vaccine, just like there are those who think they will win the lottery next week; that what kind of day they will have is affected by the alignment of planets when they were born; or, like me, that wearing lucky underpants will help the All Blacks win. That's fine, we all have our own struggles understanding probability and causality, but the issue is that while most of these beliefs have no bearing on anyone else, a slow uptake of the vaccine is bad news for everyone.
Lessons from the past
So how might the Mongols have encouraged vaccination uptake? They were actually a lot less cruel and bloodthirsty than the negative PR of the time would have us. They were enthusiastic supporters of trade, the open exchange of knowledge, and religious tolerance. They were also against burning people alive for public entertainment unlike, say, the Catholic Church of the time.
Genghis Khan's grandson, Kublai Khan, collected specialists from all over the empire and worked to combine the best of both Eastern and Western medicine. So maybe, once they'd sorted out a vaccine they would have summoned some behaviour specialists to help spread the message. Perhaps, as they did when their troops needed to pass orders, they might have suggested using a simple song to help with the message.
In the end, the Mongol dynasty was brought down, in part, by a pandemic that nobody could deal with - Bubonic Plague. Hopefully, with today's advances, we can do a little better with Covid 19, but it's important to remember that it's not just about medicine, we need some communication skills to go along with that, too. Does anybody know any good jingles?
• Paul worked in advertising at a quite good level across New Zealand, the UK and Australia including co-founding an agency in Auckland. This is a series of articles about how to make the best out of maybe not being the best.