Moments before Elvis Presley sang “Hound Dog” on The Ed Sullivan Show on October 28, 1956, he made a different kind of history backstage, where he got his polio vaccine in front of reporters. He had been recruited for this PR effort for a simple, brilliant reason—children were getting the vaccine, but teenagers and young adults weren’t. Who would they listen to? Well, they were listening to Elvis.
Fast-forward a few dozen years, and we now face an even more urgent, more complicated version of a similar issue: the scientific advancements that led to the creation of COVID-19 vaccines in record time are truly incredible, but just like in 1956, vaccines only work if three things are true. They need to be safe, they need to be effective, and people need to take them.
And at a time when misinformation is rampant, when seemingly every aspect of the COVID-19 pandemic has become politicized, and when the pandemic has laid bare and exacerbated the systemic inequities that have led to Black and brown communities being disproportionately impacted, there can be no one-size-fits-all approach to educating the American public about vaccination. In terms of size, scale, speed and urgency, our vaccine education initiative is the largest, most important communications effort in American history.
So how do we do this?
After its founding as a nonpartisan nonprofit during World War II, the Ad Council led the effort to educate the American public about polio vaccination in the 1950s, and later became known for campaigns like “Friends Don’t Let Friends Drive Drunk” and “A Mind Is a Terrible Thing to Waste.” More recently, we brought messages of unity and support during modern crises from 9/11 to Hurricane Katrina and COVID-19. Our unique history has given us unique insights into how we must educate the American public on COVID-19 vaccination.
First, we must recognize that many Americans have legitimate reasons for hesitation. Some simply want to be sure they have the best, most accurate information before making a decision that will impact their health and the health of their loved ones—that’s something we all want.
It is also critical to acknowledge that communities of color who’ve been disproportionately impacted by COVID-19 are made of families, many of whom have histories involving not just systemic inequities but medical atrocities committed against parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents that have left them with an understandable fear of doctors and the government. Messages targeted specifically to communities of color have to consider the full context of this complicated, painful history.
In other words, it’s not just about the message, it’s about the personal histories that inform how that message will be received in a particular moment.
It’s also about the messenger. Or rather, it’s about building a coalition of trusted messengers who, working together, can fan out to reach every corner of every community in the country.
Sadly, Elvis is no longer with us. But musicians can still deliver educational information to millions of fans who trust them. The same is true for politicians, athletes, TV and film stars, and online influencers.
It’s vital that we go broad by working with those who can use their massive, influential platforms to relay accurate, science-based information. Which is why the Ad Council has built an unprecedented coalition across all sectors—government, tech, entertainment, media, sports, music, advertising, medical, philanthropy, nonprofits, faith-based organizations, and the list goes on. About the only industry that isn’t part of our effort is big pharma itself, because we must avoid even the appearance of a conflict of interest.
In addition to going broad, we must also go deep into communities, recognizing that influencers exist on every corner. Doctors. Ministers. Teachers. Pharmacists. The reliable folks at the community center who are always there to help their neighbors. Ensuring these trusted advisers have the best, most accurate information is critical.
We must also stay agile. Infection rates are constantly evolving, variants are emerging, vaccine supply is ramping up. Americans are more likely to know someone who contracted COVID-19 than they were a few months ago—and in the coming weeks, they’re more likely to know someone who gets vaccinated. Today’s highly relevant message may be totally outdated tomorrow.
Such a beautiful word, isn’t it? As we begin to look beyond one of the most painful, difficult years in our country’s history, we find ourselves in a moment when that word, “tomorrow,” suddenly seems to offer reasons to hope for so many who have struggled. By working together to educate and inform the American public, we at the Ad Council believe that soon Americans will walk together into better days.
To read more about the Ad Council’s efforts to educate the American public about COVID-19 vaccination, read the announcement of our $50 million fund here; for more information about the video series featuring Dr. Anthony Fauci that we recently released to educate healthcare professionals, read the press release here; read more about our founding funders here; and read the latest updates on our funders and partners here.