Inside the ad industry’s moonshot: Pitching you to get the COVID-19 vaccine

The inside story of the most important public marketing campaign ever assembled.
BY JEFF BEER | 03-16-21

You can almost hear the needle on the record, as Billie Holiday’s “I’ll Be Seeing You” plays. An older woman looks out the window. We see the pictures of her family, her grandkids, sitting in frames and stuck to the fridge. A crayon drawing of two kids wearing masks reads, “We miss you Grandma.” The woman goes through her own version of the Mr. Rogers routine (putting on a comfy sweater and slippers) before anxiously looking out the window again. When the doorbell finally does ring, it’s not an Amazon or grocery delivery—it’s her family. She opens the door, and after a moment of brief hesitation the kids run in for a long-awaited hug.

The look of love mixed with relief on the woman’s face as her grandchildren’s arms wrap around her shoulders, as well as that on her daughter’s face as she’s watching it happen, are what the Ad Council is aiming to convey with this new public-service announcement. It’s part of the organization’s marketing effort to encourage people to get vaccinated for COVID-19, its biggest-ever PSA campaign at about $52 million, plus $500 million in donated media ad space.

“We have to do everything we can to educate people in order to move them from vaccine hesitancy to vaccine confidence,” says Ad Council CEO Lisa Sherman. “This is our moonshot.”

Advertising is typically all about the sell: Persuading us that we need something, and this brand or another is the answer. They make us laugh, they make us cry—all for us to buy. PSA campaigns are government- or corporate-funded efforts to use these same tools of persuasion to raise awareness and promote safe behavior around a particular societal ill or issue. Just Say No. Don’t Drink and Drive. Love Has No Labels. Sometimes these efforts become a part of culture themselves.

This is your brain on ads.

While past issue campaigns have been important and timely, the pandemic brought with it an unprecedented level of both urgency and difficulty. First, the Ad Council had to convey the importance of measures to slow the spread—such as masks and social distancing—and then to answer many people’s perfectly reasonable questions about vaccines that have been rolled out in record time.

The last time the Ad Council worked on a vaccine campaign, it was for polio in the 1950s, a much simpler media environment, when trust in public institutions was far higher. According to Pew Research in December 2020, 60% of people polled said they would likely get vaccinated, still leaving 40% of Americans to be convinced. The Ad Council’s data told it that 30% of Americans definitely planned to be vaccinated, 20% were absolutely not getting it, and 50% categorized their approach as “wait and see.” This latter cohort is the target audience.

Although the “wait and see” crowd is the key, within that statistic lies another challenge. Black and Latinx communities, among the most vulnerable to the virus, are also the most distrustful and hesitant to take the vaccine. Not only because of specific events such as the Tuskegee Experiment, but also the result of a lifetime of inequality in healthcare. Now multiple organizations and corporations have launched a loosely coordinated, all-out advertising blitz to make a convincing case. Can it mollify people’s fears and sufficiently answer their questions to help make America safe again?


Last March, just a week after the World Health Organization declared the coronavirus a global pandemic, the Ad Council launched its first COVID-19-related PSA. The organization partnered with the Centers for Disease Control and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to create an ongoing campaign to give people information on how to keep safe, with a focus on wearing masks or face coverings and practicing social distancing. “We really wanted to ground everything in facts and in science so people could be assured that our information was accurate and vetted,” says Sherman.

By fall 2020, as the reality of a vaccine rollout began to set in, Sherman says the organization was concerned about reports on the levels of hesitancy that people had about taking the vaccine. It teamed up with a new organization called the COVID Collaborative—a coalition of experts and institutions across health, education, and the economy—that not only organized a 24-hour livestream event with Oprah, Julia Roberts, Deepak Chopra, Questlove, and more celebrities back in May but also raised $100 million for vulnerable communities and frontline workers.

“Our role is we’re bringing the science, the experts, and all these organizations like the NAACP [and] state leaders [are] all working with us to ensure this campaign really is effective at achieving its objectives,” says COVID Collaborative cofounder and CEO John Bridgeland.

What they’ve found through research is that the best tool for an effective campaign is locality. Sure, the big PSAs with the nice stories—or even ones such as assembling Presidents Obama, Bush, and Clinton to get their shots—are helpful, but the real progress will be made in getting the message across to people through those they are close to. That can be everyone from their local news anchor to their doctor, pastor, or community leader.


To lead the strategy and creative for its vaccine campaign, the Ad Council brought in San Francisco-based agency Pereira O’Dell last December. Sherman says the organization approached this with three general guiding principles: First, science and data had to drive everything. Second, it had to combine the Ad Council’s typical national reach with a more local approach. And third, there had to be a coordinated approach between agency partners, rather than a patchwork method where everyone goes out and does their own thing.

For Pereira O’Dell cofounder and creative chairman PJ Pereira, the challenge was to find an approach that would respect people’s hesitancy, while empowering them to make the right choice. The tagline they landed on? “It’s up to you.”

“We didn’t want to take an approach that was a badge of approval like ‘I took it’ or ‘I got vaccinated,’” says Pereira. “That sounds like ‘I’m better than you.’ If you’re leaning no, you immediately cause the program to fail. Switching it to ‘It’s up to you,’ we’re leaning into a precious part of the American identity, which is our independence, the freedom to make our own choices. So the approach here is, ‘It’s up to you, but let me give you some facts.’”

In order to make that message as effective as possible, in particular to specific communities, Pereira O’Dell brought on two more agency partners by year’s end: Miami-based Alma DDB to focus on the Latinx community, and Washington, D.C.-based Joy Collective for work tailored for the Black community.

“We weren’t going to find a silver-bullet message here that worked for everyone,” says Pereira. “We had to find something that would allow us to approach from different angles. It was about finding an emotional attitude rather than specific wording. What we did was try to find an architecture that was flexible enough for different partners to take and join the effort, and there is alignment on the idea of being respectful and empathetic to people’s hesitancy.”

When Luis Miguel Messianu, creative chairman and CEO of Alma DDB, first heard the tagline and theme of “It’s up to you,” he loved the colloquial nature of it, but he quickly realized that the phrase itself really fell short when translated directly to Spanish. So they worked on a solution not only to capture the essence of the phrase but also to add a few additional layers. Their answer had to work linguistically, but more important, it had to translate culturally across all different Spanish-speaking nationalities.

They landed on “De ti depende.”

“It really communicates the collective aspect of our community and choice in a really empathetic way,” says Messianu. “It really captures that sense of empowerment [and] motivates without being pushy. So we felt this is relevant to a Hispanic audience, given the correlation with the dependence and family focus. Not only in this country, but in many instances it connects to the mother country. A lot of our audience has family in Mexico, Colombia, Argentina, and Brazil. It has a very direct connection with the collective aspect, the multigenerational component, and across a variety of geographies.”

In adapting the campaign for a Black American audience, Joy Collective founder and CEO Kelli Richardson wanted to make sure that the campaign and its tagline didn’t feel like it was foisting another burden on the Black community. She and her team instead focused on rooting the images and messaging in very familial experiences and the desire to get back some of what has been lost. The ads feature images of HBCU homecoming, family cookouts, and barbershops. The agency is also creating messages featuring well-known pastors from across the country, talking about the importance of getting the facts.

“It started with having a deep understanding of what it means to be Black in America today, and the history of this country,” says Richardson. “Things like the Tuskegee Experiment, and the distrust of the medical profession, with only 5% of doctors in this country being Black. There are huge obstacles to overcome in the Black community, so we wanted to say it’s okay to have questions. It’s okay to be concerned. We understand. Showing empathy towards that distrust, but then saying let’s connect.”


Another aspect of the vaccine-ad push that makes it unprecedented is how there are multiple, parallel efforts that aren’t related. In order to give the general public confidence in the vaccine it would be producing, Moderna hired award-winning agency TBWA\Chiat\Day Los Angeles in October to transform its public image, as much as it had one, beyond an R&D company and into a trusted brand.

Meanwhile, up in the Bronx, New York, the healthcare network Montefiore has been working to instill vaccine confidence in its community of patients—starting with its own 50,000-employee team. Now the company is working on a consumer brand campaign on vaccine confidence that will launch sometime in April or May.

Pfizer launched its “Science Wins” campaign last April, but it wasn’t about selling anything or promoting its vaccine development over any other, which is restricted by the FDA’s emergency-use authorization, which allowed the company’s vaccine to be approved so quickly. Instead, Pfizer’s campaign was a confident rallying cry in the race to find a vaccine. Last week, on March 11, the company launched a 44-minute documentary on the National Geographic channel, created with the network, documenting the epic process it took to create a vaccine so quickly.

“Everything we’re doing is about instilling vaccine confidence,” says Sally Susman, Pfizer’s executive VP and chief corporate affairs officer, in explaining the company’s reason to get the story out now. “The people in the story, these aren’t the top brass of the company. They’re the people doing the work on the ground. And like any story, the closer you get to the ground, the more you feel its truth.”


Because President Biden announced last week that all Americans should have access to the vaccine by May 1, the coalition of marketers, advertisers, and media behind the Ad Council campaign knows that this is only the beginning. Linda Yaccarino, chairman of global advertising and partnerships at NBCUniversal, says the degree of coordination and cooperation between so many, often competing, private-sector partners—including Ad Council collaborators Verizon, Walmart, Comcast, and Salesforce—to promote vaccine education “is nothing short of extraordinary.”

And she doesn’t expect it to be a single campaign.

“We’re quite sure this message will morph over time,” says Yaccarino. “It’s not going to be a one-and-done, a month or two campaign. We expect this will go on for well over a year, and I’m sure it’ll take on different iterations of what the messaging is.”

The Ad Council has its campaign, while partners have been given the flexibility to create their own work but using the “It’s up to you” tagline and framework. The hope is that this approach will produce more ways to connect with people, particularly on the local and cultural levels. The collective effect of this, plus the work of Pfizer, Moderna, and an impending White House campaign on the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, is ideally to cover as many hesitancy bases as possible.

Already the push appears to have gained a more favorable response to the very public backlashes against protective measures such as face masks and social distancing. Experts tell Fast Company that the biggest difference between those two campaigns may be that masks and other measures are seen as defensive moves, whereas the vaccine not only gives the impression of being proactive but also brings with it the sense of a light at the end of the tunnel.

The unprecedented nature of this work, from its scale and subject to the number of partners contributing, reflects the sheer importance and urgency of the message. Those involved are also anxious to see the lessons it will provide.

“This is all uncharted territory,” says Alma’s Messianu. “It will create a new benchmark.”