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Continuing to Lead With Empathy on COVID-19 Vaccine Education

On February 25th, the day the Ad Council and COVID Collaborative announced the platform for our vaccine education initiative, “It’s Up to You,” Stephen Colbert joked on The Late Show, “Okay, that’s a nice sentiment, but ‘it’s up to you’ is why we have this problem—we need everyone to get vaccinated.” He went on to suggest some absurd alternate slogans.

It was a funny moment, and it also underscored the core principle of the campaign and its slogan—Colbert, of course, didn’t need to hear messaging from us about the COVID-19 vaccines, and the same was likely true for a significant portion of his audience. They already had the answers they needed to decide to get vaccinated.

Early in the initiative’s conception phase, our research told us that about 30 percent of the American population said they would get vaccinated as soon as the COVID-19 vaccines were available to them, and about 20 percent would not get vaccinated under any circumstances. That left about 50 percent who were hesitant or undecided, and that 50 percent has been our focus. Of course, within that group are many different communities with many reasons for being hesitant or undecided, which is why the initiative is made up of multiple distinct campaigns under the “It’s Up to You” umbrella. (For more on the origins of the concept, including the double meaning of “It’s Up to You,” check out this roundtable led by our CEO.)

There is one guiding principle that unites all the work in the initiative: Over and over again, on dozens of campaigns throughout the years, our testing and research has shown us that if we don’t lead with empathy in our messaging—if our work is received as preachy, if it sounds like a lecture, if it does not feel authentic to its target audience—that message will not be received as intended, no matter how accurate or urgent it may be.

Leading with empathy is not just a strategy based on numbers. Because nearly every aspect of COVID-19 and the vaccines has become politicized, it can be easy to forget a simple truth: It’s perfectly normal for people to have questions about the COVID-19 vaccines before deciding to get vaccinated, just as people have questions about any health decision they make with their loved ones, pharmacists and doctors. And at a time when misinformation and disinformation is rampant online—for those who have reliable access to the internet—well, it’s not difficult to imagine why some people might feel confused, suspicious, or both.

For example, even as the vaccines continue to become available to younger Americans, 45 percent of 18-29-year-olds recently said they don’t have enough information to make an informed decision about the COVID-19 vaccines. If we lead with empathy, we see that what this group needs is answers to their questions. (For more on our latest efforts to reach 18-to-29-year-olds with those answers, check out our latest announcement.)

And as the vaccines become more widely available for many communities, the questions among hesitant groups have evolved over time. In the early days when supply was extremely limited, many of the top questions were about how to get vaccinated. Now, as supply has increased and eligibility has expanded, some of the top questions among those who have not yet been vaccinated are about why one should do so. Others are curious about potential side effects because they are unable to miss even a day of work.

This is why, since the beginning, we’ve deployed what we call an air game and a ground game—we’ve gone big and broad, in classic Ad Council style, and we’ve gone deep into communities, to ensure local influencers have the facts that they need to educate their community. Our research has confirmed that people are very likely to seek out trusted sources for information about the COVID-19 vaccines—their doctor, their pharmacist, the pastor at their church.

We are tailoring our messaging accordingly, and we constantly recalibrate so that we are leading with empathy every step of the way.


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