Potato song tops COVID-19 public information league

Comic Matt Lucas's ‘baked potato’ song cut through to the public during the pandemic more than official sources of health information, according to a new study.

‘Thank You, Baked Potato’ – telling people how to avoid catching and spreading coronavirus - caught the imagination of the public, shooting it to number two in the UK charts.

Now it has topped another list, this time for accessibility and ease-of understanding, outperforming sources of public health information online, including GOV.UK and the NHS.

Dr Mark Forshaw, an expert in health psychology at Liverpool John Moores University, said: “The baked potato song is a well-crafted message in public health terms.

“Government, NHS and charity officials should all take heed because Matt has pitched his words so that people not only understand completely but also recall the advice to be able to enact it in their daily lives.”

Pitch for 'maximum understanding'

The internet plays an increasing role in providing the general population with health information, with more than 20% of UK internet users aged 16 and over seeking health-related information online at least weekly.

Dr Forshaw and colleague Dr Kathryn Bould, from LJMU’s School of Psychology, looked at 65 sources of online COVID-19 information readily available to the public and assessed them for ‘readability’.

“Information should be pitched at a reading level similar to children in Year Six – or 11 to 12 year-olds for maximum understanding,” explained Forshaw.

But using eight readability indices, including Flesch Reading Ease and Flesch-Kincaid, what they found was great variance in the level of difficulty of texts, which, they say, promotes misunderstanding and hampers behaviour change.

Government and NHS 

Even within agencies there was wide variance. For example, UK.GOV’s ‘Coronavirus: what you need to do’ was ranked 2nd while, also on its site: ‘Coronavirus action plan: a guide to what you can expect across the UK’ ranks 64th – and second worst for readability.

The NHS information source on ‘coronavirus in children’ featured near the top of the league table (3rd) meaning it was one of the more readable information sources; however, another of the NHS sources, ‘How to treat coronavirus symptoms at home’ can be found further down the league table at 24th suggesting it is less understandable.

Several COVID-19 sources came from Royal colleges such as the Royal College of Midwives. A particularly notable source from the Royal College of Midwives (RCM) provided advice aimed at pregnant women, which was ranked 56.5 out of 64.5 in the league table.

Many of the sources came from charity websites relating to chronic conditions, i.e. diabetes; notably, many of which were hyperlinked from the NHS website. Even within charities, information varied greatly. For example, Diabetes UK ‘Staying at home and managing diabetes’ was ranked 12th in the table, whilst Diabetes UK ‘coronavirus and blood sugar levels’ was ranked 56th suggesting that different sections of advice from the same information source are more readable than others.

Not easily digested

Dr Forshaw, who has published the study in International Journal of Health Promotion & Education, said: “Despite the recommendation that information be presented to the public at a sixth-grade reading level, most websites are actually pitching at a higher level. Thus, a significant amount of information on the Internet about COVID-19 will not be easily readable for many people who rely on the Internet to help inform their health decisions.

“If we want greater eHealth literacy in the UK, we shall need to address basic processes for presenting information that the maximum number of people can understand and engage with.”


Top 5

1) Matt Lucas – Thank You Baked Potato

2) GOV.UK Coronavirus (COVID-19): what you need to do

3) NHS: Coronavirus in Children

4) Cancer Research UK: I have symptoms of cancer what should I do during the coronavirus outbreak?

5) NHS: Check if you have coronavirus symptoms

Bottom 5
1) Royal College of Nursing - COVID-19 (coronavirus) FAQs

2) GOV.UK: Coronavirus action plan: a guide to what you can expect across the UK

3) Royal College of Obstetrics and Gynaecology - Coronavirus infection and pregnancy

4) Diabetes UK – Coronavirus – what we’re doing

5) GOV.UK – Coronavirus: getting tested


See full tables here: Full article: Readability of online COVID-19 health information and advice (tandfonline.com)


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