Ad Council exec on COVID-19 vaccine campaign: ‘We are wired for crisis’

The Ad Council has been responsible for some of the most successful public service campaigns since the 1940s. Michelle Hillman, Chief Campaign Development Officer, discusses the organization’s efforts to educate the public about the COVID-19 vaccine.

Gabriel Perna | January 27, 2021

Smokey the Bear, McGruff the Crime Dog, and the crash-test dummies. “Friends Don’t Let Friends Drive Drunk,” “Let’s Move, and “Love Has No Labels.” 

If you’ve seen a famous public service announcement since the 1940s, chances are it came from the Ad Council. The nonprofit organization has produced some of the most well-known public service campaigns since it was created in 1942.  

In 2021, the organization won’t be able to lean on a familiar character or catchphrase from years past to promote COVID-19 vaccinations to the general public. It won’t be able to rely on an Elvis-like figure to promote the vaccination to a captivated nation. As Brian Castrucci, President and CEO of the de Beaumont Foundation told us, there is no singular medium or person in 2021 that can get everyone’s attention to increase vaccine uptake.   

Instead, the Ad Council will use research and science-based messaging, through both traditional media platforms and community-based outreach, to educate the public about COVID-19 vaccine. The pandemic has been a focal point for the organization since March, says Michelle Hillman, the Ad Council’s Chief Campaign Development Officer.  

We released our first campaign within five days of the pandemic being declared in March and since then we assembled a massive coalition of partners, teamed up with over 20 different agencies and content creators, and generated nearly $420 million in donated media, more than 60 million engagements and nearly 30 million visits to for trusted information to help Americans remain safe,” says Hillman.  

The vaccine education campaign has been launched in partnership with the COVID Collaborative, a national assembly of leading experts and institutions across health, education, and the economy. The coalition is bipartisan, co-chaired by former Republican Gov. and U.S. Sen. Dirk Kempthorne of Idaho and former Democratic Governor Deval Patrick of Massachusetts. Already this particular effort has raised $37 million of its $50 million goal 

Health Evolution spoke with Hillman about the Ad Council’s efforts to reach underserved communities in terms of vaccine confidence, how the organization is “wired for crisis” and more. Below are excerpts from this conversation.  

Health Evolution: What efforts is the Ad Council undergoing to reach underserved communities concerning vaccine confidence? 

Hillman: Rates of COVID-19 continue to spike across the nation. And while many Americans have already started the vaccination process, we recognize that there is currently a lack of confidence and credible resources for people to go to, leading to mass hesitation, fear, misinformation and complacency. 

Only when the American public opts in to get vaccinated at scale can we ensure the safety of the greater population. It is through the mass communication of this critical need that the Ad Council can make a difference, potentially saving hundreds of thousands of lives. This is the biggest issue of our lifetime and it requires an effort like never before, in terms of size, scale, speed and urgency. 

The Ad Council is leading and releasing a multi-faceted, research driven effort with a number of distinct campaigns designed to reach different audiences, including – importantly – communities of color that have been both disproportionately affected by COVID-19, and have greater vaccine hesitancy.  

Through this effort, we’ll have an air game and a ground game: the traditional media and placements you’re accustomed to seeing from the Ad Council—including TV, radio, and more—as well as grassroots, community and faith-based outreach to ensure our messages are reaching their intended audiences. This includes leveraging trusted messengers that resonate with our key audiences.  

Our platform will take an empathetic approach to ending the pandemic. People have questions about the vaccines. That’s OK. We want to acknowledge America’s concerns, provide answers to their questions and get us all on the road back to the moments and people we miss most. Our goal is to ensure the American public has the most accurate information possible to get them educated on the vaccines and, ultimately, feel confident in getting vaccinated.  

People have questions about the vaccines. What Americans need is clarity on the facts so that they can make the best decisions for themselves and their families. That’s the challenge.

Michelle Hillman, Chief Campaign Development Officer, Ad Council

Health Evolution: What does the recent survey Ad Council conducted reveal about what communities are most hesitant to take the vaccine and why? 

Hillman: We’ve been reviewing all available research about potentially compelling messaging approaches to improve people’s confidence, are in close consultation with health communications experts and experts in vaccine hesitancy and conducting our own qualitative and quantitative research. 

We know that various messages may be more compelling than others — but we also know that a ‘one size fits all’ message will not suffice, and that it will vary by communityThere is deep-seeded distrust and we need to make sure we address it with relevant content and information.

First and foremost, our research is confirming that we need to make it clear to Americans that it’s okay to have questions about the vaccinations.  

What the data shows, is that approximately 30 percent of the public say they will get vaccinated as soon as they are eligible and 20 percent say they won’t get vaccinated. Everyone else — approximately 50 percent of the public — are unsure about doing so.  

As we look at different communities, especially Black and Hispanic, these numbers shift, illuminating a higher rate of hesitancy and lower confidence in the amount of information available. Among the Black community, we’re seeing the smallest percentage committed to getting vaccinated, roughly 12 percent.  And in both the Black and Hispanic communities our research shows that only 40 percent of individuals say they feel confident they have enough information to guide their decision about getting a COVID-19 vaccination, compared to 60 percent in the general population. This underlines the incredible need to have culturally resonant messaging to ensure all Americans – especially communities of color – receive the information they need to make informed decisions for themselves and their families about getting vaccinated.  

Health Evolution: Ad Council has been responsible for some of the most famous—and successful—PSAs of all time. How do you create something that will help more people take the COVID-19 vaccine? 

Hillman: We are wired for crisis. We have a proven track record from the last 75 years — from World War II (when we were founded) to our work on the polio vaccine in the 1950s to our most recent campaigns in response to the pandemic.  

The Ad Council has been the leader of social impact marketing for over 75 years. You know our work: “Friends Don’t Let Friends Drive Drunk,” “A mind is a terrible thing to waste,” Love Has No Labels. These iconic campaigns have used the power of communications to create lasting and positive change in our country. 

We know from our experience during the last seven decades that in order to be successful, campaigns should be: 

    • Grounded in research 
    • Driven by powerful storytelling 
    • Delivered by the right messengers 
    • Shared through multiple touchpoints consistently over time 

We also know the importance of developing culturally relevant and resonant messaging. And, particularly with this effort, the importance of being able to adapt and pivot in the moment based on the latest science and information. It has to be a very agile approach. 

Health Evolution: What are the biggest challenges for health care leaders (health systems, insurance companies) in getting people to take a vaccine and how can they use their public microphones to overcome that? 

Hillman: The very thing we should be heartened by — that safe and effective vaccines have been developed so quickly — is what gives many Americans pause, including health care providers. People have questions about the vaccines. What Americans need is clarity on the facts so that they can make the best decisions for themselves and their families. That’s the challenge, and it’s critical for health care leaders at all levels – who are trusted voices on the topic – to leverage their influence to educate Americans about the safety and efficacy of COVID-19 vaccination and how vaccination can help us get back to the moments and people we miss most. 

Our aim with this effort is to acknowledge America’s concerns, provide answers to their questions and get us all on the road to recovery – the medical and health care communities play a key role in this and helping to turn the tide of the pandemic. 

Health Evolution: What is your advice to health care leaders on using public messaging to get people to take the vaccine? 

Hillman: Physicians, nurses, pharmacists and other healthcare professionals are valuable and trusted sources of information for their patients on vaccines, and critical messengers for vaccine acceptance. It’s important for health care providers to take the time to listen to their patients’ concerns, answer their questions with empathy and have conversations about the role of vaccines in protecting the individual health of their patients, as well as their families. The more accurate, vetted and data-driven information we can share, the easier it will be for Americans to make empowered decisions about their health. 

About the Author

Gabriel Perna, Senior Manager, Digital Content

Gabriel Perna is the Senior Manager of Digital Content at Health Evolution. He brings 10+ years of experience in covering the intersection of health care and business. Previously, he was at Chief Executive, Physicians Practice and Healthcare Informatics. You can reach him via email or on Twitter at @GabrielSPerna