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Amazon's Creative Director Uses Music and Tech to Address Youth Mental Health

Go behind-the-scenes with Sara Wald, Creative Director at Amazon, as we delve into our collaboration to develop a powerful new resource focused on supporting the youth. Our interactive experience, "When You Can't Say It, Play It," serves as a tool for parents and caregivers to initiate conversations with teens through music. By leveraging technology to drive impact and connection, Amazon and the Ad Council are actively working to find new ways to address mental health and wellness. Gain insight as Sara shares the inspiration behind the experience, the impact of music on youth mental health, and the need for inclusive marketing.

Felicia Carmichael: Explain our ongoing collaboration and the details of the interactive experience.

Sara Wald: “When You Can't Say It, Play It,” is a tool that helps caregivers break the ice with their teens through music. The campaign provides an actionable way families can turn feelings into songs and songs into springboards for conversation. We developed a first-of-its-kind, bilingual digital experience for discovering and sharing songs by harnessing the power of Amazon Music's catalogue of one hundred million songs and Alexa’s technology.

FC: Why was mental health and supporting parents important to Amazon? Why did it seem like the right fit for this collaboration?

SS: The youth mental health crisis is one of this country’s biggest social issues today. In fact, a recent CDC study found that nearly half (44%) of teens feel persistently sad or hopeless. Tech is often given a bad rap when it comes to teens and families because of things like social media pressures and online bullying. But, at Amazon, we see technology as a way to improve the lives of our customers. We felt it was important to harness the power of our technology to help support families navigating this devastating and pressing issue.

FC: What insights led your team to create this new interactive experience?

SS: Music was the top mental health coping mechanism for youth during the pandemic. This insight—that music can be a universal language for expression—became the basis of our campaign with the Ad Council. The campaign harnesses Amazon's music catalogue and Alexa technology to build a bridge between parents and their teens.

FC: What is one takeaway that has stayed with you throughout our collaboration?

SS: Black and Hispanic teens are an especially overlooked part of today’s U.S. youth mental health crisis. They’re about half as likely to receive professional help as their white counterparts. Support at home is also a challenge; stigmas preventing parents from talking about mental health run deeper in these communities.

While we created this experience for all parents and teens, we wanted to make sure the experience was inclusive to those audiences facing disparities. Authentic, inclusive marketing became our North Star. The cast in our launch film featured a Hispanic/Latina mother-and-daughter duo and the key song in the film is bilingual. Musicians and influencers in Black and Hispanic communities helped normalize using music as an instrument for expression. Furthermore, our digital experience is available in English and Spanish. That being said, the campaign still resonates cross-culturally and doesn't alienate other audiences.

FC: Can you share any personal experiences or connections that have influenced your involvement in this campaign?

SS: I’ve lost friends and family members to suicide and addictions stemming from mental health issues, so this campaign hit close to home. I was touched by the passion from nearly every individual who worked on this campaign. Many had personal stories to share and wanted to make sure it succeeded in its goals. It made me realize just how universal this mental health crisis is—and how everyone is touched by it directly or indirectly.

FC: For those interested in facilitating conversations around mental health, can you share key insights or lessons learned during this campaign—especially any instances where you had to pivot or reevaluate your approach?

SS: We conducted user testing early on with the intended audience for the campaign to ensure the message would resonate. When asked if their reaction to the idea was negative (1) or positive (5), the average score was 4.06 out of 5. This helped validate that the campaign would be received favorably.

That being said, there were some learnings we captured from the testing that we were able to quickly implement. In one example, early versions of the creative featured mostly moms and some testers mentioned they felt like the campaign was positioned only for them, which unintentionally sparked assumptions about gender roles. It was such an important point and we responded by adding in more dads to the site’s creative and to the audio ads.

Conducting user testing provided us learnings—but was also a learning in itself and a reminder to always test your message or idea with its intended audiences.

FC: When looking back on this campaign, how do you define success?

SS: Success is creating a new behavior: in this case, families sharing songs with one another to express what they don’t have the words to say. Our most meaningful result was 30,000 songs shared in the first week—a signal that this campaign was doing what it intended.

FC: What song would you ask Alexa to play next time you’re having a rough day?

SS: “Fix You” by Coldplay gets me every time. I’m not a particularly religious person but the combination of melodies and lyrics—“Lights will guide you home, and ignite your bones, and I will try to fix you”—gave me comfort in a way religion and prayer provide to many people.

Also, during this campaign, while trying to find the perfect song for our launch film, I came across the artist Ambar Lucid. I love that her music is in English and Spanish. It was surprisingly hard to find a song that is meaningful in two languages. We fell in love with, “A letter to my younger self”—and knew it had to be included for its universal message of comfort from parent to child.

FC: For this project, you took a unique approach, using media not just for communication but to provide a service that directly impacts audiences. Can you elaborate on the importance of developing media strategies that deliver tangible solutions for audiences?

SS: At Brand Innovation Lab our mission is to “raise expectations of what advertising can be.” We don’t think of media just as message delivery. We think about using media and technology to change behaviors or create entirely new ones, to make a positive difference in society and our customers’ lives. We’re incredibly grateful to the Ad Council for bringing us this opportunity to deliver on that mission.

FC: Working together with the Ad Council to bring this campaign to life, can you highlight the key elements that contribute to a successful collaboration—especially when navigating diverse teams with differing perspectives?

SS: This campaign brought together so many teams, individuals, technologies and talents in service of a singular mission—to use technology to make it easier for parents and teens to connect. Every new person or team we brought into the project was briefed on that mission up front and the context of today’s youth mental health crisis. When goals and perspectives diverged, we were always able to find a way forward when we put that mission back in focus.


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