The History of Our COVID-19 Vaccine Education Initiative

On Wednesday, March 11, 2020, the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a global pandemic, and the Ad Council immediately closed its offices—and sprang to action. From our homes around the country, we convened partners across media, government, tech and advertising to disseminate and amplify critical messaging about social distancing, staying home when possible and wearing a face covering. Our first work was in market on Monday, March 16.

And as American life was completely transformed in the months that followed, we continued to disseminate work to shine a light on issues exacerbated by the pandemic, including mental health, safe gun storage, and anti-Black and anti-Asian racism—even as we looked ahead to the day we might have access to effective vaccines against COVID-19.

At a time when disinformation and misinformation ran rampant, in a moment when every aspect of the pandemic had become polarized, we knew that a campaign to educate the American public about vaccination would be crucial.

And we knew it would have to be even bigger than our already unprecedented COVID-19 work—bigger than anything we’d ever done.

It would be the largest and most urgent communications effort in American history.

This is the story of our COVID-19 Vaccine Education Initiative.
Our nation’s recovery depends on widespread adoption of vaccination against COVID-19, which will require the Ad Council’s most ambitious public education effort ever.
Lisa Sherman, president and CEO of the Ad Council
OCTOBER 2020
October 9
Months before any news about vaccines becoming available, president and CEO Lisa Sherman convenes a meeting not to discuss strategy—it’s too early for that—but to discuss what a strategy would even look like. So much is unknown, including when and if any of the vaccines would be effective, but one thing is clear: We’ll have to be ready even before the vaccines are, and we’ll have to be ready for anything.

October 13
We hold our first brainstorm.

October 19
At a virtual staff town hall, Lisa announces the initiative to promote vaccines when they're proven safe and become available. Knowing the initiative will be a once-in-a-lifetime moment, she says the initiative will be “our moonshot.”
NOVEMBER 2020
November 18
At a problem definition session with Been There Done That, a key principle of the upcoming campaign is confirmed—that it’s normal to have questions about the vaccines. This principle is rooted in the Ad Council’s history of life-saving work dating back to WWII, which has shown us over and over again that people do not want to be lectured or feel put on the spot—effective messaging must meet people where they are.

But this isn’t just clinical strategy. At this time, it is normal to have questions about the vaccines, just like it's normal to have questions about any health decision we make with our doctors and loved ones.

November 23
We announce the launch of a $50 million fund for what would become our COVID-19 Vaccine Education Initiative, created in partnership with the COVID Collaborative, a national assembly of leading experts and institutions across health, education and the economy chaired by former governor and senator Dirk Kempthorne (R-ID) and former governor Deval Patrick (D-MA).

The same day, Pereira O’Dell signs on as the brand architect for the initiative.

November 30
Because we know this initiative will require not just one campaign but many—each reaching specific communities—we know we need multiple agencies as partners. Today, Miami’s Hispanic-owned agency Alma signs on to lead creative targeting Hispanic/Latine communities.
DECEMBER 2020
December 9
Black-owned agency JOY Collective signs on to lead creative targeting the Black community, which, like the Latine community, has been disproportionately impacted by the pandemic and has unique reasons for hesitancy including systemic inequities in healthcare and historic atrocities like the U.S. Public Health Service Syphilis Study at Tuskegee.

December 11
The FDA grants emergency use authorization to Pfizer-BioNTech’s COVID-19 vaccine for Americans 16 and older. Hope and urgency sweep through every person involved in this initiative—we know our efforts must roll out in tandem with availability as production ramps up in the weeks ahead.

December 15
On a Pereira O’Dell brainstorm over Zoom, creative director Simon Friedlander throws out the phrase “it’s up to you,” calling out its double meaning—it emphasizes to Americans that it’s their choice to be vaccinated, while also conveying that doing their part to get vaccinated is the best way to protect themselves and their loved ones against COVID-19.

Participants start playing around with designs including the slogan, and when they pair it with an image of a woman hugging her elderly grandmother, whom she presumably has not been able to hug in months, the team knows they have it.

They present it to the Ad Council later that night.

December 18
Just one week after the Pfizer-BioNTech news, the FDA grants emergency use authorization to a second COVID-19 vaccine, this one from Moderna. Availability of both vaccines will be extremely limited for weeks to come, and we continue to calibrate our rollout accordingly.
December 23
Among the dozens of partners who have already become involved, the NFL offers to take a big idea to the Sports League Coalition. What if, the idea goes, every major sports league and organization comes together to support a single, powerful PSA about getting back to the live sports moments we all miss?

December 29
In partnership with 18 leading health organizations and Dr. Anthony Fauci, we release videos featuring trusted doctors, nurses and pharmacists addressing the concerns of healthcare professionals about the vaccines, with the goal of arming them with the latest facts to help them speak to patients.
Dr. Fauci HCPs :30 spot
JANUARY 2021
January 12
On a pivotal day for our effort, the Ad Council and COVID Collaborative host a strategy summit for partners, featuring remarks from our president and CEO Linda Sherman, our incoming board chair Linda Yaccarino of NBCUniversal, COVID Collaborative cofounder John Bridgeland, Surgeon General Jerome Adams and Pereira O’Dell’s P.J. Pereira.

January 20
On the day of President Biden’s inauguration in Washington D.C., former presidents Barack Obama, George W. Bush and Bill Clinton quietly come together to film one of two “It’s Up to You” PSAs that also feature former president Jimmy Carter and first ladies Michelle Obama, Laura Bush, Hillary Clinton and Rosalynn Carter.
Our research fielded by Ipsos Public Affairs in February reveals that 40% of Americans have not made a decision about getting vaccinated against COVID-19. This hesitant “movable middle” will be the focus of our initiative.
FEBRUARY 2021
February 9
It’s production day for the “Abuelita”/“Grandma” PSA, directed by Henry Alex Rubin (Girl, Interrupted). The poignant PSA, which will become one of the first major spots to debut nationally, is filmed in Los Angeles in a single day, starring a real family, while the team follows along online.

February 11
We exceed our initial fundraising goal of $50 million. We keep going.

February 18
The Ad Council, Business Roundtable, CDC Foundation, de Beaumont Foundation and Robert Wood Johnson Foundation announce formation of the Health Action Alliance (HAA), a new partnership between leading business, communications and public health organizations to strengthen and accelerate the business community’s response to COVID-19.

On its website, healthaction.org, HAA provides free best-in-class tools, resources, training and events for the business community to help companies deliver trusted, fact-based health communications to employees and encourage consumers to make informed decisions about COVID-19 vaccines.

February 25
The COVID-19 Vaccine Education Initiative officially launches, including GetVaccineAnswers.org, a website that will constantly be updated with the latest common questions and their fact-based answers. The six-page press release mentions more than 300 launch partners.

February 27
The FDA grants emergency use authorization for a third vaccine, this one from Johnson & Johnson.
It's Up To You - How It Starts :30
In our first week, a media tour featuring Ad Council leadership and medical experts earns:
MARCH 2021
March 9
The Health Action Alliance hosts the National Business Summit on COVID-19 Vaccines, featuring Joshua Bolten, president and CEO of the Business Roundtable.

The same day, we host a virtual educational panel for the Black faith-based community on BlackDoctor.org in partnership with the Black Coalition Against COVID-19 and Choose Healthy Life, featuring Bishop T.D. Jakes and a special performance by Tamala Mann.

March 10
The “Grandma/Abuelita” spot debuts.
Abuelita :30 | COVID-19 Vaccine Education Initiative
March 11
In coordination with the White House and the offices of former presidents Barack Obama, Bill Clinton, George Bush and Jimmy Carter and First Ladies Michelle Obama, Laura Bush, Hillary Clinton, and Rosalynn Carter, we release the PSA showing the former presidents filmed at Biden’s inauguration and the PSA showing all eight getting vaccinated. The work is widely shared across social media, including from the White House’s official Twitter account.
Former Presidents COVID-19 Vaccination Facts
March 18
With founding partners CVS Health, Walgreens and Walmart, the Ad Council and COVID Collaborative launch content created by health experts for pharmacists and their patients.

March 23
Days after Billie Holliday’s “I’ll Be Seeing You” is first heard in the “Abuelita”/”Grandma” PSA, Willie Nelson’s cover version plays over the new spot about returning to live sporting events that features an unprecedented coalition of 13 professional leagues and organizations (below).

March 27
Our integrated content during the NAACP Image Awards reaches 3,000,000 viewers.

March 30
As part of an ongoing effort to reach hesitant conservative Americans about the vaccines, our media tour with former New Jersey governor Chris Christie garners 31 placements including MSNBC and Fox News, reaching an estimated 27.6 million people.

The same day, we host a Spanish-language virtual town hall in partnership with Telemundo.
Willie Nelson Back in the Game - 16x9
APRIL 2021
April 14
Within 24 hours of the CDC recommending a pause on the Johnson & Johnson vaccine out of an abundance of caution, we refresh the most common questions people are asking—and provide the fact-based answers—on GetVaccineAnswers.org.

April 26
After conducting dozens of behind-the-scenes interviews over several months, The Washington Post Magazine posts its cover story on our initiative online in advance of the weekend print edition.
April 28
Our new PSA featuring Eric Church, Ashley McBryde and Darius Rucker debuts during the Academy of Country Music Awards (below).
Country Music Vaccine Awareness :60 | COVID-19 Vaccine Education
MAY 2021
May 10
The FDA expands authorization of the Pfizer vaccine for children age 12 to 15.

May 13
After our research shows that approximately 55 percent of young adults are unsure about COVID-19 vaccinations or disagree that the benefits outweigh the risks, we announce a fleet of new partner efforts to reach them with the facts. Efforts from our social and digital partners include:

  • GIPHY: Promoting original “It’s Up To You” gifs and stickers
  • Instagram: A custom “Get Vaccine Answers” guide created by the Ad Council and prominently promoted by Instagram to a majority of American users (below)
  • Pinterest: Custom “It’s Up To You” pins
  • Snapchat: An #IGotTheShot lens, which encourages users to share their personal path to vaccination
  • TikTok: Original content from creators engaged and promoted by the platform
  • Twitter: A custom hash-emoji for #ItsUpToYou

Get Vaccines Answers IG Guide

JUNE 2021
June 15
For the roughly 50% of the US population who has not yet received at least one dose, we release new work relaying that it is still critical for them to continue masking up in order to protect themselves and loved ones from COVID-19.

June 29
In partnership with Variety, our Vaccine Education Summit convenes top Hollywood writers and producers to give them tools to weave vaccine-related storylines into their current projects. Participants include Mike Schur (Brooklyn 99), Robert and Michelle King (The Good Fight) and Malcolm Spellman (The Falcon and the Winter Soldier).

June 30
On one of the most moving days of the effort, we release a new short-form documentary in partnership with descendants of the men involved in the U.S. Public Health Service Syphilis Study at Tuskegee (below). This tragic, infamous study has been cited as an example of the atrocities perpetuated against Black Americans that can contribute to distrust of medical institutions generally and COVID-19 vaccines specifically. The film is created by director Deborah Riley Draper, production company Coffee Bluff Pictures and creative agency JOY Collective in conjunction with Voices For Our Fathers Legacy Foundation and Black Coalition Against COVID-19.
TheDescendantsAndTheLegacy_WEB.mp4
On June 30, an internal companywide email shares that 70% of vaccine-eligible adults have encountered at least one of our PSAs.
JULY 2021
July 20
It’s the first day of our media tour to address the rise of the Delta variant, which garners over 1.5 million impressions across broadcast and digital media.

July 21
The below gif crosses 68,000,000 views.

July 28
Among the updates shared at our quarterly insights briefing, held virtually for our wide network of partners, we unveil 90 socially optimized videos from credentialed medical experts in English, Spanish, Vietnamese, Arabic, Haitian Creole and Tagalog.

VACCINE GIPHY

AUGUST 2021
August 3
An internal email from our analytics team shares that more than 75 percent of eligible Americans have seen one of our ads about vaccine education.

August 18
The world’s biggest influencer joins our effort: Pope Francis, along with six cardinals and archbishops from North, Central and South America. In our new PSA, recorded in English, Spanish and Portuguese (below), Pope Francis calls getting vaccinated “an act of love.” This is the first Ad Council PSA created for a global audience.
COVID Vaccines - Unity Across the Americas
SEPTEMBER 2021
September 20
On Jimmy Kimmel Live, Seth MacFarlane previews a new three-minute short (below) featuring Family Guy favorites sharing the facts about the vaccines as only they can.

VACCINE FAMILY GUY TWEET

September 21
Based on new research showing nearly one in five young adults age 18 to 24 remain undecided about getting vaccinated, in partnership with Deutsch LA we release “Do It For Me,” a powerful spot featuring conversations between real people about vaccination (below).

The same day, we announce a fleet of new spots to reach parents who are hesitant to vaccinate their 12- to 17-year-olds, created in partnership with Saatchi & Satchi.
Do It For Me | COVID-19 Vaccine Education
OCTOBER 2021
October 12
We engage our 1,250th influencer. As of today the messaging from these influencers has a collective reach of 58 million.

October 19
To address new research from the Rural Policy Research Institute showing that incidence rates of COVID-19 in September were roughly 54 percent higher than elsewhere in the country, we release new PSAs sharing personal stories of rural Americans and their journeys to vaccination (below).

October 26
We surpass our goal of $240 million in donated media support and related publicity for the initiative. Needless to say, this is only possible because of the generosity of our incredible partners.
Brooks Hodges | COVID-19 Vaccine Education | Ad Council
NOVEMBER 2021
November 3
At a virtual panel regularly held for partners, Ad Council insights lead Charysse Nunez relays that the percentage of hesitant Americans has gone from 50 percent in December 2020 to 8 percent.

November 23
It’s the one-year anniversary of our COVID-19 Vaccine Education Initiative announcement.

Of all the metrics we discuss today, one stat stays with us: When we first started the project, only 30% of U.S. adults were planning to get vaccinated right away against COVID-19. As of today, over 80% have received at least one dose.

It’s a reminder of how far we’ve come—our team, our network of incredible partners—and how much work is still to be done.

November 26
Just three days later, the World Health Organization classifies a new variant of concern. They name it Omicron.

And our work continues…

WANT TO GET INVOLVED IN THE COVID-19 VACCINE EDUCATION INITIATIVE?

If you’re a brand or media, tech, advertising, marketing or entertainment company and want to get more involved, we’d love to hear from you. Fill out our partner form below and we’ll get in touch.