HHS rolls $250M ad campaign with Fauci, science focus front and center

The nation's top infectious disease expert and leading scientific voice during the pandemic, Anthony Fauci, M.D., stars in the first phase of the government’s $250 million campaign to build public confidence in the COVID-19 vaccine.

The "Tell Me More" digital video campaign kicks off the delayed and then restarted Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) effort initially bid out in September. In the opening video, Fauci reassures that with science and public health tools the pandemic will end, while additional videos dive into details of the science of the virus and vaccine development.

The first $500,000 effort will be followed by a $36.6 million fast-tracked “Slow the Spread” radio campaign set to begin Dec. 21, followed by more radio, print, digital and social media ads the following week.

Still, the bulk of the media spending—$115 million on the HHS “Building Vaccine Confidence”—is still in planning, according to a detailed campaign plan (PDF) published by The New York Times.

The plans from the contracted Washington, D.C., consultancy Fors Marsh Group include unpaid efforts as well such as marketing HHS agency experts to science writers and radio and TV outlets. Surgeon General Jerome Adams, M.D., will speak out through print, TV and radio, for example, in a prerecorded message before iHeartMedia’s Jingle Ball music festival last week.

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While a previously planned celebrity endorsement angle to the campaign was kiboshed, at least one well-known TV personality is still involved. An interview with TV talk and game show host Steve Harvey is running on the iHeartRadio public affairs show beginning last week.

HHS nixed the controversial $15 million contract to use celebrity messages to drive responsible pandemic behavior after its own investigation amid blowback from Democrats in Congress, public health officials and the public.

While the initial proposal pitched the massive advertising effort as a vehicle to “defeat despair and inspire hope” around the pandemic, Fors Mars laid out the campaign goal to “increase vaccination acceptance while reinforcing basic prevention measures” such as mask wearing and social distancing. It plans to focus on appealing to vaccine hesitators who may still be convinced.

Labeling them the “movable middle,” Fors Marsh is partnering on creative with ad agency VMLY&R and media with iHeartMedia, among others, to boost their likelihood to get a vaccine even amid government and safety concerns.

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Sixty percent of Americans currently plan to get a vaccine, according to the latest Pew Research survey. However, that percentage has gone up and down throughout the pandemic and is much lower among some groups. Harris Poll data, for instance, found that while 69% of white Americans and 65% of Black Americans were likely to get a vaccine in August, both numbers dropped precipitously by October. Only 43% of Black Americans surveyed planned on getting a vaccine as soon it was available, while 58% of white Americans said the same.

The Fors Marsh strategy includes a plan to “heavy-up in vulnerable communities” of people disproportionately affected by COVID-19, including senior citizens with comorbid conditions, front-line workers and Black, American Indian and Alaska Native, Hispanic and American Pacific Islander populations.