Using Plain Language in Marketing and Advertising

By: Christine Jean-Baptiste

Headshot of Sandra Donatucci
Sandra Donatucci

Plain language and accessibility are vital in a digital communications space, from writing, editing, speaking, and now app advertising.

Sandra Donatucci is Chief of the Marketing, Partnerships, and Creative Services Division serving Health Canada and the Public Health Agency of Canada. She leads a team that supports marketing and outreach for public health measures, and this past year was responsible for promoting awareness and uptake of the COVID Alert app to Canadians.

She shared the story of the marketing behind the app, which was one tool used to support health information to Canadians. “The COVID Alert project was beneficial to all Canadians because it played a role in raising awareness of the spread of COVID-19 in our communities,” she said.

The campaign to promote the COVID Alert app exceeded the Government of Canada’s advertising benchmarks on all fronts. Sandra and her team made sure the marketing surrounding COVID Alert used plain language, including when explaining how the app works, privacy information, and why everyone should download the app. 

The messaging used clear, action-oriented and short taglines that encouraged Canadians to “double your protection,” “protect your community,” and “prevent future outbreaks.” The campaign also tapped younger audiences who were asked to help “Crush COVID” on multiple gaming platforms through a partnership with the Entertainment Software Association of Canada – one partnership out of many that Sandra and her team secured.

Sandra said plain language and accessibility played an essential role in marketing and advertising the app.

“We strive to use plain language as much as possible; however, sometimes we need to use specific wording that is scientifically more accurate. For instance, while it would have been simpler to say ‘Use the COVID Alert app to stop the spread of COVID-19,’ we had to say ‘Use the COVID Alert app to help limit the spread of COVID-19’ instead,” she explained.
COVID Alert app

Another example included changing a proposed tagline “Use the COVID Alert app to prevent another wave” to use the term “future outbreaks,” despite the fact that “waves” were commonly used by the media and general public.

Testing images and concepts was also important to ensure that the message was well understood by the target audience and encouraged them to take the recommended action. Sandra said the initial ad concept was tested through several focus groups with Canadians. 

“In these groups, we learned that messaging that focused on ‘doing your part’ or ‘helping your community’ was received more positively. Messaging related to how privacy is protected within the app had the unanticipated effect of either confusing the participants or raising concerns that there could be privacy issues related to the app,” she added. 

Through leading the marketing and advertising campaign for the COVID Alert App that now has 6.6M downloads, Sandra has learned some tips and tricks along the way:

  • When promoting a mobile app, you need to serve your ads on mobile devices, and ads should link directly to the app store where it can be downloaded.
  • Apple Search Ads were particularly effective and offered a unique opportunity to track beyond impressions and clicks by tracking the number of app installs from each ad.
  • Consider targeting paid ads to vulnerable groups who were disproportionately impacted by the pandemic. Top-performing ad creatives from the national campaign were translated into nine languages that were selected based on “Language most often spoken in the home” (Census 2016). 
  • Focus groups are an excellent way to test imagery and messaging. 
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