Biden pledges to boost vaccine confidence—but how? Ad agency execs weigh in

As President Joseph Biden takes office today, organizing vaccine distribution and increasing vaccine supplies are day one priorities. But a bigger challenge to stemming the pandemic is much less concrete.

How do you get people to believe?

“If you’d told me 10 months ago that pharma would develop a vaccine, but that only 60% of Americans were willing to get it, I wouldn’t have believed you. It’s incredibly disheartening,” Wendy Blackburn, executive VP at Intouch Solutions, said in an email.

“Communication inconsistencies, dishonest leadership and a botched vaccine rollout mean that trust in our system has been eroded. That won’t easily be regained,” she added.

So what can the Biden administration do to convince people to get vaccinated? One of the early pledges included in a memo from the new White House Chief of Staff, Ron Klain, calls for a “federally-run, locally-focused public education campaign,” according to media reports. The strategy includes a plan to “elevate trusted local voices and outline the historic efforts to deliver a safe vaccine.”

Specific creative and media details are yet to be revealed by the Biden team and its partners, so Fierce Pharma turned to pharma and healthcare ad agency executives for ideas and asked them: “What would you do?”

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Transparency, deep dives on behavior and motivation, building trust and confidence, going local— especially in underserved and overburdened communities—and consistency were all themes that popped up again and again.

Remember normal?

One common creative idea is to remind people of what's possible. Several executives advised showing people the life they’re longing to get back.

That means traditional vaccine campaign tactics likely won’t cut it. Typical vaccination pushes can get a 45% to 65% immunization rate, but the COVID-19 pandemic requires at least 70% of people get their shots, Lee Fraser, M.D. and chief medical officer at Digitas Health, said in an email.

“Many vaccine campaigns focus on [the] fear of getting sick, effectiveness of the vaccine and the safety of the vaccine," Fraser said. "These are important messages for the COVID-19 vaccines too, but there needs to be a larger message cuts across a larger population to reach those who aren’t motivated by the personal fear of getting sick."

“I’d look at shifting to focus on community and the message that no matter where you live or what your interests are—whether it’s going to the bowling alley or going out to brunch with friends—the vaccine is the most viable path to being able to reengage in those activities and get back to your community," he added. "So the message is less about securing your own health and more about getting back to the community you enjoy.”

Matt Eastwood, global chief creative officer at McCann Health agreed that straight talk and stats won’t be enough.[I]nformation does not always equal understanding," he said via email.

“Success usually comes out of a deep understanding of the human condition, what is important in daily life, who to trust, and what a healthy future looks like," Eastwood added. "Empowered health consumers are those who have appropriate information from sources they trust to see themselves and their families living healthier and more productive lives.”

A mix of emotion and scientific proof, for example, would be important to Renata Florio, chief creative officer at Ogilvy Health if she were in charge.  

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“From a behavioral science lens, we know that people need to see proof the vaccines work in order to feel comfortable with the idea of getting them ourselves or having those we love receive them,” she said in an email.

“From the emotional side of things, we also know that everyone is more than ready to go back to their normal lives," she said, adding, "I might suggest appealing to people’s sense of longing for ‘what was’ along with their desire to reclaim some semblance of normalcy with simple messaging, like: ‘It’s for you and those you care about to be able to be together again. And it’s for all of us to feel safe again.’”

Finding the right audience

When it comes to media, targeting a wide variety of demographic and psychographic groups with the right message at the right time is an historic challenge—essentially every person in the U.S.—but also necessary. Planning will be critical, Justin Freid, chief growth and innovation officer at CMI/Compas, said.

“To overcome vaccine hesitation, you’re going to have to have a lot of different segmentation and a lot of different messages. It’s almost going to be individual media plans for each of the different audiences and different phases,” he said.

“If they think they’re going to go out there and just run some TV ads and reach everybody, they’re going to miss everybody under the age of 40,” Freid added.

And no matter what the channel, consistency and repetition will be important to hammer the messages home.

As Blackburn said, “Repeat it loud, repeat it often, and have everyone aligned to the same thoughtful, consistent message. And please—no Hollywood celebrities.”