This PSA About Social Distancing Is the Most Effective So Far

Ohio Department of Health shows the perils of a crowd

Ohio Department of Health
Headshot of David Griner

There are many ways to visualize a pandemic, from global heat maps to the ubiquitous line charts that have accompanied the call to “flatten the curve” by limiting the spread of COVID-19.

But the Ohio Department of Health and Dayton agency Real Art have found what just might be the most effective way of showing the danger when people continue to cluster together amid the outbreak of a highly contagious coronavirus.

“Space Makes Us Safer,” released across the health department’s social channels Thursday and amplified today by Governor Mike DeWine on his own accounts, uses a meticulously assembled set of mouse traps and pingpong balls to illustrate how a community can quickly be devastated by the chain reaction of an emerging virus.

Andy Nick, video team lead at Real Art, shared more details about the project on Twitter. In one behind-the-scenes video, he shows how the opening shot took eight hours to set up—but luckily was worth all the effort.

In response to some questions by the video’s many viewers over the past 24 hours, Nick also said that it was accomplished through practical effects. Initially, it was a factor of cost and timeline, though creating it by hand also gives the project a believability that CGI might have detracted from.

Nick provided the following summary to Adweek of how the project came together:

My name is Andy Nick, I’m the director of the “Mouse Trap” video and a designer at Real Art, a small digital agency here in Dayton, Ohio. We do work for Chipotle, Converse, Lowe’s, and some other amazing clients. But the Ohio Department of Health has really become a focus for our firm over the last few weeks.

This pitch began with Real Art’s owner, Chris Wire. He called our director of photography and myself, and said: “I had this idea…could we film this in a few days? And can you do it responsibly, considering the situation?”

We said it was possible, and Chris contacted our client, Arundi Venkayya at the Department of Health. They loved the idea, and we agreed that if we worked quickly, we might be able to cut through the noise.

Real Art put together a production that spanned four days—two days of pre-production, and two shoot days. With COVID-19 issues affecting traditional shipping, we had to rely on the old-school methods of acquiring 500 mouse traps—buying out the stock at every dollar store in a 50 mile radius of Dayton.

On the first shoot day, we set up all 500 traps and filmed a single take. A single error at the halfway caused a chain reaction that cost us a significant amount of time, but by the end of the day we had four cameras pointing at a single grid, and I had the privilege of throwing the first ball. What a trip.

The second day, we narrowed our focus to tighter swatches of traps so that we could scale up to five or so actual shots in a day. We ended by spreading the grid out for our “distanced” view. The secret to getting that last shot so quickly? Superglue. Once we were done setting off explosions, we froze the traps in place to speed up movement and allow us to throw the ball from different angles without risking a reset.

In all, we just feel really thankful to our client Arundi and the Ohio Department of Health for the opportunity to help set off a totally different kind of “viral” chain reaction—one that helps encourage people to stay the course. Social Distancing DOES work, and the State of Ohio is one of the best examples of it in the nation. We’re proud to represent our leaders and echo the message they’ve been giving us since the beginning of this pandemic.

A similar visual has been used before, typically to illustrate chain reactions. It is believed to have first been used in Disney’s 1957 “Our Friend the Atom” episode of the show Walt Disney’s Wonderful World of Color.

Almost a decade ago, as part of the Harvard Natural Sciences Lecture Demonstrations series, a team used pingpong balls and mouse traps to help visualize a nuclear fission reaction:

“If ever you envied those daring bomb disposal guys, here’s a setup to test your nerve,” the Harvard team said in describing their project. You can read a detailed account of how they built the project here.

@griner David Griner is creative and innovation editor at Adweek and host of Adweek's podcast, "Yeah, That's Probably an Ad."