Michael Chesnut et al. : Cuteness and Fear in the COVID-19 Linguistic Landscape of South Korea

Updated: Aug 22, 2021

Michael Chesnut, Nate Ming Curran, & Sungwoo Kim: Cuteness and Fear in the Covid-19 Linguistic Landscape of South Korea

"Neither fear-based nor cuteness-based COVID-19 signs intrinsically ask the public to work towards the collective good, better understand this public health crisis, or engage in some measure of self-sacrifice, potentially limiting these signs as a means of informing and directing the public regarding COVID-19. "

Across the globe, fear of COVID-19 has shaped the reaction of governments and individuals to this pandemic, so it may not be surprising to see posters regarding COVID-19 using fear-inducing images and text in order to shape public attitudes and practices. Cuteness on the other hand, best exemplified by small childlike characters and whimsical text and images, would seem to have little connection to COVID-19 and no natural role in public communication regarding COVID-19. However, in South Korea both fear-based and cuteness-based signs are being used in important ways to convey information and directives regarding COVID-19.

This essay is based on data collected by all three authors. At the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, we began documenting our encounters with any signs relating to COVID-19 seen during our daily routines in Seoul, Korea. Some of the most striking signs we observed were those which referenced the lethal nature of COVID-19. Figure 1, taken on September 20th, 2020 features a government authorized poster, seen by the authors in subway stations, parks, and other public places, which asks, “Which mask do you want to wear?” and below, “When someone else puts a mask on you, it is (too) late”, alongside an image of two people, one healthy person wearing a mask meant to prevent transmission of COVID-19 and one ill person using a respirator meant to assist with breathing. By showing a COVID-19 patient unable to breathe without assistance, alongside a healthy mask-wearing person, this sign emphasizes the potentially lethal risk of COVID-19 and suggests that appropriate mask wearing can lessen this risk. Another similar poster stated, “If you are not alone now, you can be alone forever”, emphasizing the importance of social-distancing by suggesting that the eternal solitude of death may be the result of meeting others. These posters were displayed at a time when the public in Korea was becoming increasingly tired of living with COVID-19 preventative measures, and signs such as these are meant to induce fear and increase the perceived risk of COVID-19 in order to shape public behavior. However, there is significant debate over the effectiveness of such fear-based messaging, with some researchers suggesting this messaging is ineffective and can even lead some members of the public to reject the preventative measures advocated in such messaging, while other research suggests this type of messaging can be effective. Additionally, there is concern that fear-based messaging can contribute to stigmatising those who are associated with fear-arousing threats, which in the case of COVID-19 can shape public perception of this disease in ways that marginalize those who suffer from the illness. The poster in Figure 1, for example, may lead some to believe that contracting COVID-19 is inevitably due to not wearing a mask; in other words that contracting the disease is a failure of personal responsibility that positions those who suffer from COVID-19 as irresponsible and reckless. There are additional ethical issues with fear-based signage as this means of communication may be persuasive to those who already have the psychological and physical resources available to protect their health, while making those less psychologically and physically capable of protecting themselves feel angry, defensive, and more willing to engage in risky behavior. Further, these fear-based signs can raise general anxiety levels and cause suffering to those familiar with the fear-inducing topic of these signs. Certainly it is possible that someone who lost a loved one to COVID-19 or suffered greatly due to this illness could easily be distressed by seeing the poster featured in Figure 1.

Figure 1: A picture of a fear-based public health poster taken in Seoul on September 20th, 2020.

These signs were significant enough to be discussed in the press: some reported finding them “scary” and “ghastly” while others said they were “well made” and “made them think”. Importantly, while the poster in Figure 1 was seen in many locations across Seoul, it disappeared relatively quickly. While it may seem natural that fear-based posters are used to shape public health practices regarding COVID-19, in fact very few examples of this type of signage were observed in Seoul, and only government-authorized public-health signage was observed using fear this way.

In contrast, a wide variety of cuteness-based COVID-19 signage was observed in many different contexts. This signage often featured childlike characters advocating mask wearing as in Figure 2 or whimsical colors, fonts, and even simple English, such as ‘OK’, as in Figure 3. Cuteness was seen in signs produced by private businesses such as cafes and restaurants as well as other businesses, public companies, and government.

Figure 2: A picture of a sign taken on September 14, 2020 posted on the front door of a cafe in Seoul which says, ‘Please wear a mask’ in the main text and ‘Thank you’ below.

For pharmacies, other retail businesses, and many cafes and restaurants, which in Korea stayed open for in-person dining for much if not all of the pandemic, using cuteness to convey directives regarding mask wearing and social distancing can be an effective way to inform customers of these COVID-19 preventative measures in a non-threatening manner and without invoking any sense of danger or risk which may lead to some customers rethinking their decision to visit these businesses. Further, having a character ask customers to wear masks and engage in social distancing means the directive no longer appears to be coming from the manager of the store, the business itself, or government regulations. Instead, it appears that a cute character is giving the directive and in this way these signs obscure or perhaps “play with” the identity of who is giving the directive, potentially making the directive less threatening and easier to obey. Additionally, cute childlike characters can invoke a general feeling of wanting to protect others, just as how seeing an infant can invoke those feelings more generally, which may strengthen individuals’ willingness to protect others through measures such as mask wearing and social distancing. Lastly, seeing cute characters wearing masks in many different contexts, with an example seen in Figure 2, can normalize mask wearing and contribute to this practice being understood as something everyone should do.

Figure 3: A picture taken on November 28, 2020 of a sign seen in front of several pharmacies in Seoul which states, “Entering the pharmacy is allowed after putting on a mask”.

Government, public institutions, and private enterprises have created a tremendous variety of different ways of crafting COVID-19 related messages on signs in Korea. Moreover, there seems a willingness among both sign makers and the public to experiment with different ways of conveying COVID-19 related messages, meaning much can be learned from examining the COVID-19 linguistic landscape of Korea. Cuteness studies is an emerging field and Korea provides a needed means of examining how cuteness can be deployed in emergency communication. Already scholars have begun discussing fear-based COVID-19 messaging and the COVID-19 linguistic landscape of Korea should contribute to these discussions.

Cuteness-based signage avoids discussing the consequences of COVID-19, obscures the authority responsible for directive signage, and softens these directives more generally. All of this can make complying with cuteness-based COVID-19 signs easier, in certain contexts. Fear-based signage attempts to force viewers to confront the lethal nature of COVID-19 and change understandings and practices on that basis. However, both fear and cuteness center the self and one’s own feelings without requiring deeper thought or reflection. Neither fear-based nor cuteness-based COVID-19 signs intrinsically ask the public to work towards the collective good, better understand this public health crisis, or engage in some measure of self-sacrifice, potentially limiting these signs as a means of informing and directing the public regarding COVID-19.

The COVID-19 pandemic is not over and other serious health threats will inevitably emerge in the future, making it vitally important to understand how to communicate new and unfamiliar health practices to the public. Any health communication strategy, including the use of both fear-based and cuteness-based messaging, should be carefully examined and, if deemed suitable for use in emergency communication, discussed with the public and modified to suit local needs and contexts, ideally before the next disaster strikes.

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