From masking to vaccines, Ad Council corrals feds, brands and media into COVID-19 campaigns

The Ad Council's COVID-19 vaccine effort now underway recalls its roots: One of its earliest efforts was promoting the polio vaccine in the 1950s.

Many of the ads promoting mask-wearing, social-distancing and vaccinations during the COVID-19 pandemic have had one thing in common—the Ad Council.

Working with the Department of Health and Human Services, Centers for Disease Control and two White House administrations, along with hundreds of brands and media partners, the nonprofit marketing agency has been the COVID-19 marketing glue, coordinating cohesive messages all along.

“We were made for moments like this,” said Heidi Arthur, chief campaign development officer at the Ad Council. The organization's model is built on teamwork with "many partners in the communications industry, as well as a network of partners in the nonprofit world who believe in collaboration to get consistent messaging out there.”

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The Ad Council's made-for moment began when the pandemic was declared in March 2020. The Ad Council kicked into high gear, immediately reaching out to HHS and the CDC to make sure its first efforts were the correct public health messages to send.

One of its earliest campaigns, “Mask Up America,” debuted a year ago, asking people to slow the spread of COVID-19 by wearing masks. By February of this year, the campaign had racked up 154 million impressions across $4.3 million in donated, earned and shared media, according to the Ad Council.

Meanwhile, media partners and brands from previous health-and-safety campaigns—the Ad Council's iconic work includes the Crash Test Dummies and the "Love Has No Labels" campaign—asked what the group would do when vaccines were ready. And how could they help?

In fact, the marketing group was at work even before the vaccines rolled out. It worked with the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, CDC and HHS to create a peer-to-peer campaign in December featuring NIAID chief Anthony Fauci and other medical professionals answering questions for physicians and nurses.

That set the stage for its consumer vaccine education effort, “It’s Up to You,” which at $50 million in contributions and counting is one of the largest public education efforts ever in the U.S.

More than 300 “who’s who” major brands, media partners, celebrities, medical associations and community groups joined in on the work, which began in February and continues today.

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The COVID-19 vaccine effort also harkens back to the roots of the Ad Council. One of its first major public health initiatives was a national campaign in the ‘50s to encourage people to get the polio vaccine. Celebrities of the day—including singers Elvis Presley and Ella Fitzgerald, actors Sammy Davis Jr. and Dick Van Dyke, and even sports stars like the Brooklyn Dodgers' Roy Campanella—appeared on then-new TV networks to promote polio vaccines.

Now, for COVID-19 vaccinations, the Ad Council will continue to press its “air and ground game” mix of TV public service announcements and community outreach from trusted local sources as the pandemic and vaccination needs change.

In May, for instance, the campaign targeted young people after vaccines were extended to ages 12 and older. Youth-savvy partners like Instagram, Twitch and TikTok created custom content to answer questions and serve up information to the more than 50% of young adults who were unsure or didn't believe the vaccines' benefits outweighed their risks.

The Ad Council will continue pursuing its goal to find out “what are the top concerns on people’s minds and who are the most trusted voices in their community," Arthur said.

"It's making sure we’re working with the right partners in rural communities and urban communities, speaking to young people—and soon we’ll be talking to parents who are deciding for their kids who are now eligible," she said. "The work is not done."