Advertising agencies’ national campaign for Covid-19 vaccination is like no other one they have ever done, and it’s still evolving

Vaccination ad

The business of persuading Americans to get a coronavirus vaccine is one of the most complex and challenging parts of the pandemic. A big part of that effort is the campaign by The Advertising Council, a nonprofit that has conceived Smokey Bear and a host of other campaigns. David Montgomery tells the story in The Washington Post Magazine:

“The question of whether to vaccinate sits at the center of America’s deepest sources of discontent: political hatred, racial injustice, institutional mistrust. And unlike a political campaign, which needs to persuade 50.1 percent of the voters, or a car commercial, which would be a smashing success if it captured 25 percent of consumers, this marketing blitz had to convince upward of 70 percent of the public — enough to reach herd immunity,” to protect those unwilling or unable to be vaccinated.

“Against this absurdly challenging backdrop, the Ad Council and its partners embarked on a search for a message — a phrase, really — that a fractured nation could somehow agree on,” Montgomery reports. “That search would eventually lead them towards a surprising strategy — one that broke with almost everything the Ad Council had learned in its history of creating public service campaigns.”

Ad Council research chief Charysse Nunez’s research “pointed to four main reasons for hesitancy: fear of dangerous side effects; concern about how fast the drugs were developed; mistrust of the political motives of elected leaders and the economic motives of the drug companies; and conspiracy theories. Those four clusters of concern, in turn, splintered further, depending on the subgroup, with Republican, Democratic, conservative, liberal, religious, nonreligious, informed, underinformed, rural and urban people having distinct takes on the issue. Unlike past causes the Ad Council has taken up, “this is a unique situation because … America is divided in many ways,” Nunez told me. “We have to meet [people] where they are, in a very empathetic manner.”

The key challenge, Montgomery reports, was “how to connect the seemingly unrelated concerns that factored into different populations’ vaccination decisions. Where was the unifying thread? The experts on the call were stumped.” Then marketing strategist Nikki Crumpton asked, “Why don’t we get comfortable with the fact that they’re uncomfortable?”

“It was a key epiphany,” Montgomery wrote. Doubt itself must be given space; fears must be acknowledged. Crumpton told him, “You’re not going to get over this hump of vaccine hesitancy until you face into the real problem, which is there are more questions than answers around this right now. And to not lean into the fact that people have questions will make people feel like you’re hiding something. Or that they’re not smart enough, clever enough or worthy enough to be heard.”

Montgomery observes, “The sensation of not being heard had roiled the nation throughout the pandemic and during the preceding years — not being heard about political grievances, racial injustices, public health mandates. Vaccine production was ramping up as more than half the country thought Trump was trying to steal an election he lost, while a large minority baselessly thought it was being stolen from him. Facts and truth itself were constantly being challenged.”

In such an environment, the group soon found what didn’t work: “Appeals to civic duty or community spirit” or casting vaccinations as the way to get back to normal, Montgomery reports. “What might work, Nunez found, was invoking ‘missed moments’: getting back to activities people yearn for,” but “The hesitaters didn’t want to be talked down to or told what to do. They wanted their doubts respectfully acknowledged and their questions answered.”

Developing the sales pitch was up to the ad agency Pereira O’Dell, “which was working pro bono for the Ad Council,” Montgomery writes. Principal PJ Pereira recalled his thinking: “We need to find a way to tap into this American instinct and this energy towards, ‘It’s our decision’.” Creative Director Simon Friedlander, on a Zoom call from Australia, coined the catchphrase: “It’s up to you.”

In other words, Montgomery translates, “No one is telling you to get a vaccine the way they were telling you to wear a mask. At the same time, the phrase carries a subtext of implied responsibility: It’s up to you to ask questions and get answers. It’s up to you to get back to the moments you miss,” such as “hugging a grandmother, watching a ballgame, lunching with friends, traveling. The phrase seemed infinitely adaptable.” In Spanish, it’s “De ti depende.”

The campaign, targeting the hesitant and reluctant, appeared to work, but polling showed conservatives and evangelical Christians were a tougher sell. “The Ad Council joined the National Association of Evangelicals and others to support a new website,, which has videos with biblical perspectives on questions such as, ‘Should pro-lifers be pro-vaccine?’ and ‘How can Christians spot fake news on the vaccine?’ There’s also an interview with Francis Collins, head of the National Institutes of Health and a devout Christian,” Montgomery notes.

Nunez analyzed polling of those target groups and told the team, “This audience wants to be educated, not indoctrinated. Their personal physician is the most trusted source that they’re seeking.” Montgomery reports, “They also want to hear personal stories and endorsements from ‘credible influencers’ and their family and friends, she said. To begin mobilizing those trusted voices, however, would require a more-tailored conservative ground game — a work in progress.” And so is the entire campaign, which is “constantly being modified and expanded to keep up with twists and turns” like more contagious variants and the pause in Johnson & Johnson vaccinations. But as vaccination numbers rise, they are displayed on the campaign’s website — “a shrewd exercise of what marketing professor Jonah Berger calls ‘social proof,’ or subtly enticing people to do something because so many others are.”

The Ad Council’s campaign isn’t the only one. There are state campaigns, and a federal campaign, which has a more traditional slogan: “We Can Do This.” It channels “public-spirited campaigns of the past, counting on an all-for-one spirit to get us out of the pandemic,” Montgomery writes. “It presumes that this crisis and today’s America are not really so different from those shattering moments and scary challenges of the past. President Biden’s slogan seemed naive to me. Then again, perhaps the nation’s chief executive has little choice but to invoke unity.”
“If you’re president, how to rally a nation?” asks John Bridgeland of the Covid Collaborative. “You’ve got to do that. You’ve got to take a stance that we’ve got to get back to a sense of ‘we’.” That could work to those who still think that way, “but what chance did a Democratic administration have of persuading vaccine hesitaters who distrust government and Democrats?” Montgomery asked Bridgeland, who replied, “Our campaign [with the Ad Council] is reaching a population that’s more difficult for the government campaign to reach.”
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