Ad Council’s challenge: Persuade skeptics to believe in COVID vaccines
By Tiffany Hsu
With coronavirus cases on the rise and communities returning to lockdown across the country, a marketing push is underway to persuade skeptical Americans to immunize themselves once vaccines are ready.
The federal government, which has sent mixed messages about a pandemic that has caused more than 250,000 deaths nationwide, is not leading the charge. Instead, the private sector is backing a planned $50 million campaign to persuade people to protect themselves at a time when polls have suggested that more than 40% of adult Americans are not confident in a potential vaccine.
The Ad Council, a nonprofit advertising group, led a similar effort in the 1950s, when it urged Americans to get vaccinated against polio. Its COVID-19 vaccination push will be one of the largest public education crusades in history, the group said. On Monday, the Ad Council will announce the campaign and start testing messaging. It will begin rolling out public service announcements across airwaves, publications and social media next year, when vaccines are expected to be approved and made available to the public.
The White House has collaborated with the Ad Council on previous public health efforts, but it is not involved in this one.
“Frankly, this is the biggest public health crisis we’ve ever faced, and we don’t have time to waste,” said Lisa Sherman, the group’s chief executive. “We’re working in advance, so that once those vaccines are proven to be safe and approved by all the right people, we’re ready to go.”
While the drug companies Pfizer and Moderna have announced promising updates on the vaccines they are developing, President-elect Joe Biden has blamed President Donald Trump for causing anxiety about the safety of potential immunization efforts. Anti-vaccine sentiment has been growing for decades, driven in part by a backlash against pharmaceutical companies.
Fifty-eight percent of American adults said they were willing to take a coronavirus vaccine, according to a Gallup poll conducted between Oct. 19 and Nov. 1. Another poll, conducted last month by Ipsos and the World Economic Forum, found that 85% of Chinese adults, 79% of British adults and 76% of Canadian adults planned to be vaccinated, compared with 64% of Americans.
The Ad Council has joined with a coalition of experts known as the COVID Collaborative, which concluded through its own survey that only one-third of Americans plan to get vaccinated.
Researchers from the University of Pennsylvania conducted a study during a measles outbreak last year and concluded that “a relatively high number of individuals are at least somewhat misinformed about vaccines,” often expressing mistaken beliefs about their association with autism and toxins. The researchers also found a correlation between belief in vaccine misinformation and low trust in medical authorities, as well as exposure to material about vaccines on social media.
Steve Danehy, a Pfizer spokesperson, said in an email that “public education around the need for vaccination, as well as the rigorous process by which the vaccines have been developed, is critical.”
Public messaging campaigns can be instrumental in persuading people to act in a health crisis. Travel advisories kept many pregnant tourists and business travelers away from areas struggling to contain the Zika epidemic in 2016, for instance.
The marketing plan for a coronavirus vaccine must persuade people that the treatment is safe and effective, while also providing practical instructions on where people can get vaccinated and how they can schedule appointments, said Dolores Albarracin, a psychology, business and medicine professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
“If you do not introduce information about how to achieve vaccination, simply a favorable attitude will not take people to the vaccination site,” she said. “Without an understanding of the psychological and sociostructural processes leading to vaccination, it’s going to be difficult to get the 47% of people who don’t intend to vaccinate to do it.”
Research by the COVID Collaborative suggests that fewer than 20% of Black Americans believe that a vaccine will be safe or effective. Many respondents stated that they had little faith in the government’s ability to look after their interests or cited distrust stemming from past ethics violations, such as the infamous Tuskegee study, which tracked Black men infected with syphilis but did not treat them.
“In these highly vulnerable communities that are disproportionately affected by COVID, it’s a big, big trust-building exercise from the ground up,” said John Bridgeland, a founder of the COVID Collaborative, and its chief executive. “They trust their physicians, their pharmacists, and so we have to go very local in having trusted messengers.”
Bridgeland said that working to defeat the virus was required moving beyond “our political divisions and the difficulties that have undermined trust in our government.”
“Our job as a country is to increase the uptake of the vaccine so Americans are actually engaged in their own recovery,” he said.