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‘It’s Up to You’: Ad campaign to encourage coronavirus vaccination gets underway

The campaign, overseen by the Ad Council, is billed as one of the largest public education efforts in U.S. history

The Ad Council is launching a national campaign to promote taking available coronavirus vaccines and a website with answers about their safety. (Video: Ad Council)
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For tens of millions of Americans still unsure about taking coronavirus vaccine shots, advertising industry experts and government scientists have a new message: “It’s Up to You.”

That message and accompanying ad campaign — shaped by months of consumer research and backed by more than $50 million in donated funds — is to be unveiled Thursday across TV and digital video, social media and audio platforms like Pandora and Spotify. It also will include messaging tailored toward Black and Hispanic communities, where studies have found a lack of trust about the coronavirus vaccines and their long-term effects. The ads and related events will feature celebrities, scientists and members of the faith community.

The campaign — the first concerted effort urging Americans to get vaccinated against the novel coronavirus — will further encourage those skeptical of the vaccines to visit a new website,, for the latest information on the safety and availability of vaccines.

The campaign was overseen by the Ad Council — the nonprofit communications industry group responsible for landmark ads such as Smokey Bear and famous public health messages including “Friends Don’t Let Friends Drive Drunk” — which has billed “It’s Up to You” as one of the largest public education efforts in U.S. history. Experts at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention closely consulted on the campaign, which was announced in November as the first coronavirus vaccines were nearing release. The CDC’s branding also will appear in ads.

The goal of the campaign is to win over skeptical Americans, whose numbers are considered likely to be the difference between enough people being vaccinated and failing to curb the spread of the novel coronavirus. Nearly 45 million Americans have received at least one shot of the two-dose regimen as of Wednesday, according to Washington Post data. Experts want more than 100 million more to be inoculated once the vaccines become more widely available in the coming weeks.

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But many people remain hesitant. According to a recent AP/NORC poll, about 1 in 3 Americans said they definitely would not or probably would not get the coronavirus vaccine. The poll showed that 57 percent of Black Americans said they have received or planned to get the vaccine, compared with 65 percent of Hispanic Americans and 68 percent of White Americans. Ad Council researchers also found that some possible messaging approaches, such as encouraging Americans to be vaccinated because it’s “the right thing to do,” were rejected as pushy or accusatory in surveyed groups.

Instead, the Ad Council and other messaging experts say that because many Americans are confused or unnerved by the nation’s coronavirus response — troubled by the speed of the vaccines’ development and by the political battles that shaped the 2020 election — any messaging campaign needs to recognize that hesitancy and respond accordingly.

“First and foremost, we have to acknowledge the concern rather than challenge it,” said Charysse Nunez, who helped steer the Ad Council’s work, in a virtual conference with state and public health leaders, where she shared research findings Wednesday ahead of the ad campaign’s launch. “Where we believe the opportunity resides is with the 40 percent of the population that has a wait-and-see mind-set,” Nunez said.

Anthony S. Fauci, the nation’s top infectious-disease doctor, has suggested that as many as 90 percent of Americans need to acquire immunity to the novel coronavirus through vaccination or infection. Fauci and other officials also have urged rapid vaccinations, given the emergence of mutated forms of the coronavirus, which have sparked fears that the virus’s evolution could outpace current treatments and vaccines.

Government regulators have authorized a pair of vaccines from Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna, with President Biden vowing that the United States will have sufficient vaccine supply to inoculate 300 million people by July. A third vaccine from Johnson & Johnson appears set to win regulators’ authorization in the coming days after its safety and efficacy were demonstrated in clinical trials.

Current vaccination drives have focused on health workers and some of the most vulnerable Americans, such as people in nursing homes or those with preexisting health conditions that could make a coronavirus infection more dangerous, and health experts are worried about persuading a broader swath of the population that has been less engaged in the process. Researchers at the Kaiser Family Foundation asked more than 1,000 Americans about their vaccination plans, finding that about one-third of adults would “wait and see” about getting a vaccine and that 13 percent would “definitely not” get vaccinated.

“I don’t believe the FDA is telling the truth,” one 42-year-old Black woman in North Carolina, who vowed that she would “definitely not” get the vaccine, told KFF. “The vaccine is not ready yet and people I know who have taken it are having serious side effects and doctors are covering it up,” the woman claimed.

A 63-year-old Hispanic woman from California told KFF: "“I have a preexisting condition so I am a little fearful to get it.”

Scientists and government regulators have repeatedly said that the vaccines — which were first administered in trials that began last spring — are safe and for the vast majority of recipients have provoked only mild side effects. More than 28 million Americans have been infected with the virus and more than 503,000 Americans have died, according to Washington Post data.

[Putting 500,000 covid-19 deaths into perspective]

Researchers say that conveying certain messages about the value of being vaccinated — such as that it will offer protection and help restart the in-person gatherings with family and friends that have been lost during the pandemic — could make a significant difference in winning over hesitant Americans.

“There’s a lot of information that could be conveyed to those people to help them make good decisions for themselves,” said KFF’s Liz Hamel, who has helped to lead the organization’s coronavirus public opinion surveys. “We know that most people who are still deciding whether to get the vaccine want it to be their personal choice.”

KFF also has found that interest in being vaccinated increases as people see friends and family members get shots, Hamel said.

The Ad Council’s own researchers also studied how best to amplify the pro-vaccination message — stressing that Americans are most receptive to messages from their personal doctors, health workers and virus survivors rather than entertainers, the news media and even some national political figures — and concluded that some language was more effective at reaching vaccine holdouts.

For instance, a slide on “consumer language do’s and don’ts” presented by the Ad Council on Wednesday urged state public health leaders not to say “anti-vaxxers” and instead use phrases like “people who have questions” about the vaccine. The group also said that officials should avoid terms like “Operation Warp Speed” and “Emergency Use Authorization” — references, respectively, to the Trump administration’s push to speed vaccine development and to the regulatory approval given to the resulting vaccines — and instead say that the vaccines were “authorized by FDA based on clinical testing.”

The Ad Council’s campaign included significant contributions from major corporations including Amazon, Apple, Bank of America, Cisco, CVS Health, Facebook, General Motors, Google and YouTube, the Humana Foundation, NBCUniversal/Comcast, Salesforce, Verizon, Walgreens and Walmart. (Amazon founder and chief executive Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post.)

The creative agency Pereira O’Dell worked pro bono to develop the “It’s Up to You” message, with support from JOY Collective, a Black- and female-owned agency that customized the message for Black communities.

“This is not only the most important campaign of our generation, but it needs to be the largest, too,” P.J. Pereira, Pereira O’Dell’s creative chairman, said in a statement.

The campaign also will include events and outreach targeted toward communities of color such as an effort partnering with the NAACP on Thursday evening. A planned March 9 event for the Black and Hispanic faith communities will feature Bishop T.D. Jakes. Celebrities including actors Luis Guizman and Daveed Diggs and high-profile health figures including CNN medical analyst Sanjay Gupta will take part in some ads and events.

When the campaign was announced in November, the Ad Council said the drive would “complement government efforts,” but a $300 million ad blitz planned under Trump never materialized amid scrutiny of how political appointees in the administration were shaping the campaign. Meanwhile, President Biden’s plan to launch government-backed pro-vaccine ads — which the administration billed in January as an “unprecedented public campaign that builds trust around vaccination” — are still several weeks away from being finalized, said three officials, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss an in-progress effort.

The Biden administration also has made a multimillion-dollar commitment to the “It’s Up to You” campaign, said one of the officials.

Meanwhile, health officials say they’re preparing to grapple with the complexities of mass messaging when some Americans have been fully vaccinated, others may be waiting on a second shot and many remain skeptical about the need to be vaccinated.

“As the science evolves, we’re trying to update information so people can understand ‘what’s different for me personally if I have been vaccinated,’” Anne Schuchat, the CDC’s principal deputy director, said during Wednesday’s Web conference. “We should really invest in nicer masks because they’re going to be with us for a while.”