In November, the Ad Council announced a COVID-19 vaccine education initiative in partnership with COVID Collaborative that has become the largest communications effort in American history. The platform for the initiative, “It’s Up To You,” conveys that having questions about the COVID-19 vaccines is understandable, and that getting vaccinated is one of the best ways to get back to the moments we all miss. The initiative is made up of multiple campaigns targeted to different demographics, with a special focus on reaching Black and Hispanic communities who have been disproportionately impacted by the pandemic due to systemic inequities.
To explore the complex issues around COVID-19 vaccine hesitancy, race and community, Ad Council President and CEO Lisa Sherman recently spoke with “It’s Up To You” partners PJ Pereira, co-founder and creative chairman of Pereira O’Dell; Ed Rogers, co-founder of Been There Done That; Luis Miguel Messianu, founder, creative chairman and CEO of Alma; and Kelli Joy Richardson Lawson, founder and CEO of JOY Collective.
Lisa Sherman: My first question is to you, PJ. Early on in our discussions, there was an almost instinctual idea that we should treat getting vaccinated the way people show off their “I Voted” sticker—framing it like the cool thing to do. We learned very quickly that that was not going to be the most productive approach. As the brand architect of the “It’s Up To You” platform, could you talk more about that early creative journey, and how it addresses the vaccination issue?
PJ Pereira: The research showed that we need to get between 70% and 80% of the country vaccinated. Different sources have pointed to slightly different proportions, but roughly 30% of the country already decided to take it. Good. There were also 20% that, no matter what we say, had decided they won’t take it. Finally, we had the folks who were on the fence—50% of the U.S.
Within that 50% who are on the fence, there were two groups, “leaning yes” and “leaning no.” The essential issue for the “leaning yes” group is that they want to see others taking it first. For them, the simple visibility of the “yes” group getting the vaccines will be enough. In fact, the “I voted” sticker approach works well with these folks. So, if you’ve gotten vaccinated already, showing off a little may help push these “leaning yes” people into action.
But with the “leaning no” group expectations go the other way. Unless we can change their minds, they will stay put. And if they do, there is no way we can get to the threshold we need. Therefore, the critical battle of this war against the pandemic lies in the minds and hearts of those leaning towards not taking it.
In this polarized world, the vaccination debate has been polluted by all the ugliness and contempt of the political discourse. When people feel they are being talked down to, especially by the side they despise, they shut down. There are no arguments, no facts, no science that can convince them. Because they aren’t listening. That is true for a national advertising campaign, for the specific initiatives aimed at key audiences like the Black and Hispanic communities, and also for the one-on-one conversations we need to have with our neighbors and relatives. So changing minds begins with respect for their questions and their hesitancies.
Sherman: Ed, what is your perspective on why it’s so important to normalize hesitancy?
Ed Rogers: The question of getting vaccinated against COVID-19 has been politicized to the point that people aren’t OK with those who are feeling some hesitancy. Yet it was clear from our research that there is a large percentage of the general public who are hesitant about the vaccine—they just don’t feel comfortable voicing their concerns for fear of potential backlash. No one should feel embarrassed or scared to ask questions at a time like this, particularly those within communities whose past experiences give them every right to feel hesitant.
Sherman: Luis, as we talk about how we reach specific communities with this initiative, how do you see your efforts to tailor the “It’s Up To You” platform to the concerns of America’s Hispanic populations, knowing that no community is monolithic?
Luis Miguel Messianu: One thing is for sure, the Hispanic identity is complex, fluid and continuously evolving. As marketers we need to develop concepts that are relevant to specific segments. It’s not about speaking to or at our audiences. We shouldn’t be telling them who they are. It’s about showing them as they are, authentically representing their voices and their stories. Specificity drives authenticity.
The thinking behind the Hispanic interpretation of “It’s Up To You”/“De Ti Depende” takes into consideration the nuances that make the platform even more relevant for the Hispanic audience. It communicates choice in a very empathetic way, captures the sense of empowerment and motivates without being pushy. Finally, it’s colloquial and relevant across different nationalities. We’re convinced that the platform will resonate with audiences that switch back and forth between languages.
Sherman: Kelli, could you talk about your approach to reaching the Black community on this initiative?
Kelli Joy Richardson Lawson: We created a multilayered campaign that leads with empathy and an understanding of the moments that matter most to the Black community. The campaign, titled “Let’s Get Back To,” acknowledges that it’s OK to have questions and it’s OK to have concerns, yet we all must get the facts to make an informed decision for ourselves and our families. The initial launch of the campaign included spots focused on family gatherings, worship, girls’ trips and Sunday brunches.
Additionally, we’ve learned that the messenger is equally as important as the message. For some Black consumers, there is a significant trust barrier to overcome with both the medical community and government. Taking the leap to consider taking the COVID-19 vaccine comes with information tailored specifically for us. It comes with getting the facts from the trusted individuals and sources that we all turn to first, people like faith leaders. For example, we are leaning into the faith-based community by supporting the work of the Ad Council with creative that features several pastors from around the country. Other important sources of trust include Black medical experts, influencers and key Black media outlets such as BET and OWN that speak directly to the Black experience.
We’re excited by data from the Ad Council and others showing that the gap between vaccine confidence and vaccine hesitancy in the Black community is beginning to narrow. More people within our community are considering COVID-19 vaccination. Hesitancy is increasingly tied to issues of access.
Sherman: One of our guiding principles on this initiative has been that this isn’t about getting back to “normal,” which gave us these systemic inequities that led to the pandemic’s disproportionate impact on communities of color in the first place. So, here is a final question for all of you: What is the moment or insight that has given you hope for what the future could look like? PJ, what do you think?
Pereira: Let me make a confession—I had been in the hesitant group myself. What changed my mind was the idea that I could go back to practicing martial arts at the gym without bringing a dangerous bug to my home, and that got me to look at the data with an open mind. Around me, I managed to convince others with similar desires. If we respect their hesitancy first, then tap into the moments they want to go back and only then offer the facts, the science is there to back it up. The Ad Council put together a solid strategy and the largest coalition of organizations ever assembled to tackle any communications problem. More than 300 publishers, tech companies, brands and agencies are ready to talk to the nation as a whole, and to every community, every niche, every group on their own terms. We will get over this.
Sherman: Ed, what are your thoughts on this point?
Rogers: An encouraging behavior change caused by this seismic shock to our culture has been the approach to problem solving. The openness to partnership and collaboration we are seeing is inspiring. The ecosystems we have seen created around the development of the vaccine is a good example. It is clear that if you bring together a diverse group of people with differing points of view and create an open and collaborative environment in which to define and align around the problem, you can accelerate to better results.
Messianu: Our communities are the poster child of resilience, grit and optimism. We are children of crisis based on our upbringing, both in our home countries and even in our journey in this great nation. We are used to new beginnings, and against all odds we keep pushing forward. What’s important is to realize that this is not a zero-sum game. What’s good for Hispanics and other diverse segments is good for our country overall. If nothing else, the pandemic should end up being an equalizer. Optimism is the best vaccine.
Sherman: And finally, Kelli, what is it that’s given you hope?
Richardson Lawson: We’re hopeful about bringing attention to persistent health inequities that have exacerbated the impact of the pandemic on the Black community. Our work can help shift “normal” to become more inclusive and responsive to the needs of the Black community. The creative process to develop this work was also inspiring and a turning point for us at JOY Collective. Many of us are part of the very community we’re seeking to engage with in this campaign, and it’s an honor and a privilege we treasure.
Sherman: Working with all of you has been so inspiring for the Ad Council team—thank you all for sharing your insights, and for everything you’ve done for this initiative as we work toward that brighter future.