HHS bids out massive $250M ad campaign to put hopeful spin on coronavirus pandemic: report

The Department of Health and Human Services plans to spend $250 million in media communications to “defeat despair and inspire hope” around the coronavirus pandemic, according to a media report.

Politico reporters obtained a copy of an HHS document detailing the project, which was sent to communications agencies to solicit bids for what would be an extremely large advertising campaign in the heart of the presidential campaign season.

More than 10 companies are said to be interested in the effort, which would run now through January. Michael Caputo, a former Trump campaign staffer and now assistant secretary for public affairs at HHS, would reportedly head up the campaign.

As described, the campaign would tap traditional, digital and social media and partner with the sports and entertainment industries and public health groups “to deliver important public health and economic information the administration can defeat despair, inspire hope and achieve national recovery.”

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While it’s not unusual for government agencies to use advertising to promote public health or raise awareness around a consumer issue, the size of the spend and its timing just ahead of the presidential election raised eyebrows.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, for example, has spent $93 million since mid-March on TV ads, according to data from real-time TV ad tracker iSpot.tv. Those public service-type ads center on the ways people can protect themselves and others during the pandemic. They direct consumers to its the CDC.gov website for more information.

However, $250 million is an extremely large budget for a five-month campaign. That amount roughly translates to consumer ad spending from Dunkin Donuts, Visa and Domino’s Pizza which all spend around $500 million in the U.S. annually, Advertising Age data show.

The proposed campaign comes amid an outcry over President Trump's public pressure on the FDA and the agency's recent handling of coronavirus treatments and vaccines.

Last week, FDA Commissioner Stephen Hahn faced a firestorm of criticism for inaccurately portraying data about convalescent plasma during a Trump press conference touting the treatment and its new emergency authorization.

Hahn eventually walked back the incorrect statements in several media interviews and online, but has since suggested the agency would consider approving a COVID vaccine before phase 3 data are complete. The series of events has spawned some calls for Hahn to resign, and even supportive public health experts have cautioned the agency to eschew politics and resist pressure as vaccine data come up for discussion.

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As public health experts note, the concern for emerging COVID-19 vaccines is that consumers will hesitate to get vaccines approved in what might be seen as a rush or as part of a political process.

Caputo responded in the Politico report to a former Obama staffer who called the proposed work “quite a stretch beyond what HHS normally does.”

He said to Politico, “If I want to take advice on how to do this, I won’t take it from people behind Healthcare.gov.”

HHS did not respond to requests for comment, but social media had plenty to say. More than 4,500 retweets and comments by Tuesday morning on the original Politico story mostly panned the idea. Many noted the money would better used for other purposes.

Caputo himself criticized some of the negative feedback on Twitter Tuesday, responding to senior White House correspondent S. V. Date of the Huffington Post writing, “Enemy of the people.” Date had questioned in his tweet, “180,000 dead and they want to spend a quarter billion on a PR firm?”

Complaints about political appointments inside the FDA and HHS have come from both inside and outside the organizations. After the FDA imbroglio around emergency plasma use, FDA spokesperson Emily Miller was let go, according to a New York Times report, after just 11 days on the job. Miller previously worked on several Texas Republican political campaigns and as a journalist for conservative news network One America News. Her FDA role had previously been held by career staff.