For 78 years, the Advertising Council has been helping Americans face national challenges. From Smokey Bear's "remember, only you can prevent forest fires," to "loose lips sink ships" during World War II and the 1990s campaign friends don't let friends drive drunk.
More recently, during the coronavirus pandemic, the nonprofit advertising group launched a #MaskUpAmerica campaign.
Now the Ad Council is preparing to convince people that a coronavirus vaccine is safe. Only about 60% of American adults say they would get the vaccine, according to a recent survey by the Pew Research Center. That's up from about 50% in September, well before vaccines were announced.
Lisa Sherman, president and CEO of the Ad Council, tells NPR's All Things Considered that the $50 million campaign will be the most significant in the group's history. It's "our moonshot moment. We're approaching this with the size and the speed and the scale and the urgency unlike anything we've ever done before."
She says the campaign, which doesn't yet have a catchphrase, will be widely targeted with a "unified and consistent message" going beyond television to include modern technology platforms. But it will also work to specifically reach "communities of color that have been the hardest hit by the pandemic and where we see higher levels of hesitancy." The Pew survey found that only 42% of Black adults are inclined to be vaccinated.
Here are highlights of the interview, edited for length and clarity.
On what will make the campaign successful
The truth of the matter is, if people don't take it, we're not going to be able to move forward and start to experience the health and the safety and the economic recovery that we want to experience. We're focused on really moving people from vaccine hesitancy — and there's a high level of that — to getting educated about the facts so that they can have more confidence about taking the vaccine.
On delivering a compelling message
This is an issue that literally affects every American. So what we need is a unified and consistent message versus a patchwork approach. We'll be working with the nation's top vaccine and public health experts who are going to advise us on some of the messaging that we are testing right now. [It will go] across every platform and every medium that you can think about with insights and messaging that will be relevant to an audience. But we also need a local ground game where we're going to work with community-based organizations, faith-based organizations and those trusted messengers in the community that can help deliver the message.
On using celebrities and different platforms, from Facebook to radio to billboards, to reach specific audiences
And for some, it might be an athlete or a musical artist or some sort of YouTube or Snapchat or TikTok influencer, because all of those folks are trusted messengers as well. Elvis [Presley, who publicly received a polio vaccine in 1956 to inspire public confidence] was a trusted influencer of his day. And there are many folks who can play that role today. Yesterday, Clinton, Bush and Obama all said that they would take the vaccine and do it publicly.
On countering disinformation around the vaccines on social media
I think we will always rely on and lead with fact-based information, and that's the essence of our campaign. We'll be working with some partners who are going to be keeping an eye on what's going on in social media so that we can react in real time to try and counter those messages and get people focused on what we know to be true.
Fatma Tanis and Jan Johnson produced and edited the audio version of this story. Avie Schneider produced for the Web.
ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
For 78 years, the Advertising Council has been helping Americans face national challenges.
(SOUNDBITE OF ADVERTISEMENT)
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As Smokey Bear) Remember, only you can prevent forest fires.
SHAPIRO: The same nonprofit group that created Smokey Bear informed us that loose lips sink ships in World War II. In the '90s, they told us that friends don't let friends drive drunk. Now they are deep into a campaign around the coronavirus. They already launched an effort with the #MaskUpAmerica. And the newest phase is a $50 million campaign to persuade Americans that a vaccine is safe. Earlier today, I spoke with the president of the Ad Council, Lisa Sherman.
LISA SHERMAN: We are embarking on the largest communications effort in our history around this campaign. We're focused on really moving people from vaccine hesitancy to getting educated about the facts so that they can have more confidence about taking the vaccine. And as we think about this campaign, because it is going to be the most significant in our history, kind of think of it as our moonshot moment. We're approaching this with the size and the speed and the scale and the urgency unlike anything we've ever done before.
SHAPIRO: So this effort to make Americans confident in a vaccine will involve, you know, politicians giving speeches and all kinds of other elements. But as an advertiser, what makes the most compelling message in an ad? I mean, how do you get a campaign like this to work?
SHERMAN: You know, this is an issue that literally affects every American in this country. So what we need is a unified and consistent message versus a patchwork approach. We really don't think that that would work. Everything we do has to be science-based and data-driven. So we'll be working with the nation's top vaccine and public health experts. We'll have a specific focus in reaching communities of color that have been the hardest hit by the pandemic and where we see higher levels of hesitancy.
SHAPIRO: You say there needs to be a unified, consistent message but also that messages need to speak to specific, individual populations that are different from one another. So how do you balance those two things?
SHERMAN: Well, that's the great news about the Ad Council. You know, I think that we have a model that is really wired for crisis. And we are able to quickly bring together partners who give us broad reach. But then we also have relationships with all of the technology platforms and other more niche media partners who can go deep and reach specific audiences with more tailored messaging.
SHAPIRO: It's interesting that you refer to tech platforms because the advertising landscape today, as you know, is so completely different from only you can prevent forest fires or loose lips sink ships. I mean, how do you approach the infinite number of places that people get their information today?
SHERMAN: We really understand, you know, based on who we're speaking to. So in this case, if we're targeting specifically communities of color, you know, we understand where they, you know - how they consume media, who they trust to deliver messaging. And then we have those partners that are able to connect really to meet them where they are with the right message at the right place and at the right time.
SHAPIRO: So you're saying in some communities it might be Facebook ads, in others, it might be radio ads, in others, it might be a billboard on the side of a bus stop?
SHERMAN: Exactly. And for some, it might be an athlete or a musical artist.
SHAPIRO: You remind me that in 1956, Elvis publicly got a polio vaccine to inspire confidence in that vaccine. It sounds like you're saying there could be something similar happening 50 years later with one of the top pop artists of today or rappers or whoever it may be.
SHERMAN: Absolutely. I think that people trust people. And Elvis was a trusted influencer of his day. And there are many folks who can play that role today.
SHAPIRO: And so if this is effective, do you think a year from now we will have your ads as deeply burned into our brains as phrases like got milk? or where's the beef?
SHERMAN: (Laughter) That would be nice. But most importantly...
SHERMAN: ...I think the way I would measure success is to see how - a significant percentage of our country having been vaccinated. And they are doing their part in getting us all back to work and feeling safe and healthy again.
SHAPIRO: That's Ad Council President Lisa Sherman. Thank you for talking with us about this.
SHERMAN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.