The question of how to deal with the millions of Americans who have chosen not to get vaccinated against COVID-19 is often framed in the starkest terms.
- Option 1: Use vaccine mandates to force shots into their unwilling arms.
- Option 2: Give up on the possibility of returning to normal life anytime soon.
But there’s a third option: advertising. If America has one true genius, it’s knowing how to rewire the decision-making loops of every human being with a pulse. The ad industry succeeds every day at selling beer and pickup trucks across the political divide. Could that same magic make everyone want a vaccine? Rather than viewing vaccination through the lens of sociology or epistemology, as the Biden administration has been doing, why not treat it as a complicated — but ultimately solvable — marketing problem?
Here’s what we know: The unvaccinated tend to skew young, rural, Southern, and heavily Republican. Over the summer, in less than 60 days, the gap in vaccination rates between Trump-voting and Biden-voting counties increased fivefold, to 12%. Even as the White House continues to send Dr. Anthony Fauci out to do TikTok interviews with Gen Z influencers, the data suggests it may be time to switch gears. What worked to get the first 70% of Americans vaccinated isn’t going to persuade the remaining 30.
What would a new approach look like? That’s the question I put to six advertising executives with experience in everything from Fortune 500 branding to public-health campaigns in rural communities. What follows are ideas from our informal brainstorming sessions. Many provided smart, small-bore advice. Some floated big, weird, and audacious ideas for resetting the entire pandemic conversation. Almost every single person I spoke with wanted to figure out a way to capitalize on the influence of celebrities and professional athletes, particularly those in the NFL. And all agreed that while the research-based approach of Fauci and the CDC remains important, we need to come up with new, creative ways to move the proverbial needle.
“Those who haven’t gotten a vaccine aren’t science-based people,” said one executive, who was born in the South. “We’ve been talking about the shots in sophisticated medical terms. But people who already don’t trust government and medicine — you make them even more skeptical.”
A common enemy: ‘Kill Kovid’
Jimm Lasser is executive creative director at Lightning Orchard. During his 13 years at Wieden+Kennedy, he worked on two seminal Chrysler campaigns — Halftime in America (featuring Clint Eastwood) and Imported from Detroit (featuring Eminem).
Culturally, it feels like our country is going through a civil war. Your audience is essentially one side of that, and the perceived megaphone is coming from the other side. You’re fighting against some major headwinds. And the benefit is mostly invisible. There’s a low barrier for the consumer — it’s just a shot. But it’s also a high barrier because of the politics.
So how do you speak right at the group that’s, like, “no”? What would appeal to them? How can I frame this issue in a way that wouldn’t try to persuade them with numbers and charts and science?
I would try to use humor to disarm them. Puns are nice — it’s such a low bar, and they can get sticky in your mind. I was thinking about arms and injections in your arms, and Second Amendment arms being a really important freedom in some of these states. What if you had Sean Hannity with a bare arm saying: “It’s right to bare arms. Kill COVID!”
It’s almost a call to arms: Let’s defend this country against this enemy. “Kill Kovid.” Give it a “K.” That could be a sticky thing. Let’s turn it from “you gotta get protected” to “let’s fucking track this thing down and kill it.” It’s like the film “Tremors.” We gotta get together and fucking slay this thing. It’s a problem. It’s a horror. This isn’t some thing that these eggheads at the CDC think is happening. This is a real-life monster we have to slay.
That’s what pro wrestling would do. They would get a wrestler and name him “Kovid.” He’d be a heel that the good guy could take down. The vaccination becomes part of the fun. We’re all taking a whack at him. You’d have to execute it with a wink, a little bit of a sense of humor. That would be the challenge.
Play the Trump card
Mike Lee is vice president of brand strategy at Cactus, a marketing and communications firm in Denver, which has worked on anti-smoking and suicide-prevention campaigns.
The rejectors are the hardest people to move. For others, it’s not about the vaccine itself. There’s some other inhibiting belief that’s getting in the way. It could be an identity issue, where getting the vaccine would conflict with their worldview. If they got the vaccine and their friends knew it, they’d be seen as wrong. And if they were wrong about that, could they be wrong about something else?
How do you use the rest of that worldview as an accelerant, as opposed to a headwind? When the FDA gives full approval, that’s an opportunity to give people a way out, so they feel like they won. “You were right to wait. Now we know.” That message needs to come from leading voices who were casting doubt on the vaccines. Maybe they’re also trying to make sure that Trump gets credit. He started the vaccine program, he directed the resources. So you make it part of his legacy.
Knowing what you don’t know
Brad Flowers is cofounder of Bullhorn Creative, an agency in Lexington, Kentucky, and the author of “The Naming Book,” on brand identity.
Our creative director made a joke that a lot of the advertising aimed at people in this demographic is for vape pens, or a new flavor of Mountain Dew. We were joking around about making the vaccine an ingredient in Bud Light, or putting it in a vape pen.
But these kinds of generalizations can be dangerous. The core of a successful branding campaign is approaching it with empathy. The idea of going big makes me nervous. You can go big, and go really wrong, if you miss the empathy part.
It’s important to understand the ethnography of the area, the culture you’re working inside of. We were recently hired to name an old bus station that had been derelict for years. People had bought it and were changing it into a market. The history of the place was problematic, because the buses had run on segregated routes. We found folks who lived in the neighborhood and hired them to contribute to the process. They talked to their friends and neighbors and helped come up with a solution that everyone was excited about. The name was the Julietta Market, after Julie Lewis, a civil-rights hero who grew up here in Lexington. Before we talked to them, I thought that people in the neighborhood would want a more generic name, a name that would create distance and not feel like it was co-opting history. But they felt strongly that it was empowering.
So part of the process would be finding people who have an anti-vaccine position and involve them in delivering the creative work. They’d have to be part of the team.
Be careful about making assumptions
Emily Minner is the director of operations at Bullhorn Creative, in Lexington, Kentucky.
We shouldn’t assume that everyone is motivated by politics. When we discuss our own internal COVID policies at Bullhorn, we come back to the fact that everyone is in a different situation, and we have to be empathetic. That helps build trust.
I’m pregnant, and my doctor said she felt like I could wait to get the vaccine. I was low-risk. I work from home. I’m due in September, and at first I was just trying to make it to the and get vaccinated after the birth. But I grew up in Alabama. The Delta variant has gotten pretty crazy down there, and people I know started telling me I needed to get the vaccine. My dad called me. I also heard more information from reliable sources: In just the last month, ob-gyn associations have recommended that all pregnant women get the vaccine.
I feel like there are people out there who are just hesitant, like I was. There’s a reason they’re holding off. It’s not that they’re anti-vaccine in general. They just need more information.
What really works is hearing from people who are genuinely concerned for you, who love you and want to make sure you’re OK. Not just assuming that you’re some crazy person who doesn’t ever want to get vaccinated and has no regard for other people’s health. It’s gotten really extreme. When I was making my decision, I’d hear comments from people I know about these nasty, unvaccinated people. I felt almost judged and looked down upon.
The local story
Perri duGard Owens is president and CEO of duGard Communications, a strategic communications firm in Nashville whose clients have included Amazon, Deloitte, and the National Museum of African American Music.
The fear involved is so high. The mistrust. So you need testimonials. Not just from the standpoint of aspiration, or celebrity, but “this is what I’ve dealt with.” People just don’t believe it’s going to happen to them.
For me, it was a person who sat behind me at a funeral. She wasn’t wearing a mask. There were 75 people there paying their respects, and eight people were masked — my family of five and three others. The woman behind me had been vaccinated, as had I. But after the funeral, she had a breakthrough infection. She called me and she was so apologetic. So how do you share her story with the rest of the 75? That’s a testimonial that’s truly connected to this specific community.
We have to go back to knocking on doors and treating this as a full-on awareness campaign with the kind of budget and tactics you’d see a political party use to get out the vote. Here in Nashville we brought the city’s coronavirus czar to an outdoor Easter service with a 3,000-member congregation. We wanted them to hear it from the horse’s mouth. Have a dialogue. Debunk the myths. You are trying to build a cocoon of information around the people who could be affected — a community of support that amplifies the overarching message, and that also creates concentric circles around the issue.
When it’s close to home, it pricks the heart. I know a young woman who was waffling about the vaccine, until her mother had a close friend pass away. Then she reached out to folks to ask “should I?” Someone she really trusts said yes, and now she’s doing it.
Serving your country
Jamie Cooper is CEO of Drake Cooper, an employee-owned agency headquartered in Boise, Idaho.
It has to be one big universal message, a message that’s not political. It can’t be spike proteins and a bunch of detail. Nike doesn’t tell you what the shoelaces are made of. You just see a guy running across a bridge and you say “I want to be that guy.”
What Toyota did during the Olympics was amazing. They never showed a car. It was just an idea: “Start Your Impossible.” The point wasn’t “here’s the new truck.” It was more “be a part of something.” It’s frustrating to be working in this field and see Toyota have such a great thing, and then have the United States miss this.
So many of the messages we receive are negative. Drinking and driving, seat belts, anti-smoking, climate change. On the positive side, you have “Just Do It.” One emotion you could try and connect with is pride. Like military recruitment, rallying for a cause: “You need to go serve your country.” When guys signed up for World War II, did they do it for themselves? When you sign up for the vaccine, you’re doing it for your family, you’re doing it for the community.
What if you could get Facebook and Google on board? They’ve got billions of dollars to muscle this. Why is that not happening? Why isn’t Facebook or Google or Nike throwing down the dollars and saying “We gotta do this!”? You look back and think how much we spent marketing the War on Drugs. How much have we really spent messaging this? It’s disorganized. Where was the big message during the Olympics? That’s a big opportunity to rally us. We’re already feeling prideful. While we’re celebrating how awesome we are at gymnastics, why not be awesome in your community and get a vaccine?
You have to be artful and bold and go out with something that can become a movement, a catchphrase. Make it so that you look at a TV through a bar window and see it, and it’s all on social media. This is how you move people in this country. It’s been done for decades. Why can’t we do this?