As the Delta variant quickly spreads, and the number of US Covid-19 cases heads in the wrong direction, it’s now more urgent than ever for people to get the Covid-19 vaccine. However, television ads persuading people to get vaccinated have declined sharply, according to a new analysis of national advertising data.
If you watch TV at all, you have certainly seen them. The ads have catchy tunes and reassuring themes, they offer free beer, or promise that “everything is going to be alright” and tug at your heartstrings showing joyful pre-pandemic crowds that presumably can get together again once everyone is vaccinated. Even the Republican Senate Minority leader Mitchell McConnell taped one.
In January there were more than 512 million ad impressions for Covid-19 vaccine-related spots, according to the analysis performed for CNN by iSpot, a company that measures impressions and performance of all TV ads. The company tracks viewership on over 18 million smart TVs across the US, then factors in US Census data to get a national picture of who is seeing the ads.
Except for March, the number of Covid-19 vaccine ads grew steadily to reach a peak of 3.5 billion ad impressions in May. Since then, the number has been declining as has, until recently, the number of people getting vaccinated. In July, there were only about 713 million ad impressions for Covid-19 vaccine-related spots.
Ad impressions drop off naturally in the summer months when fewer people are watching TV, but that’s not the only reason you are not seeing as many of them. They’re tapering off because, the advertising experts say, they are no longer working to persuade the unvaccinated.
“I believe that people are now actually inoculated against the Covid message instead of the Covid virus,” said Punam Keller, the senior associate dean of innovation and growth at the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth.
Ad impressions are just one metric. For the analysis, iSpot also recruits panels of at least 500 US consumers with quotas for different demographics. The respondents answer questions about how much they liked an ad, how much it made them feel, and how persuaded they were. Those answers are quantified into additional data.
Earlier this year, Covid-19 vaccine ads were about raising awareness and giving people information about them, according to John Cassillo, an analyst with TV[R]EV who works with iSpot. The ads ran on tentpole TV events like the NFL playoffs that had large audiences.
FedEx’s ad Moving Forward, where images of weddings and roller coasters move backwards, as a faithful FedEx delivery driver rushes to deliver the Covid-19 vaccine “so life can move forward,” performed well. It was considered the second most successful with Republican and Libertarian audiences, that generally expressed more cynicism than Democrats about Covid-19 ads.
Another ad that did well, even among Republicans and Liberatarians, was one from Walmart that let people know its pharmacy would be ready to administer the Covid-19 vaccines.
Google’s ad that showed people type in search terms like “social distancing,” “lockdown,” and everyone’s favorite “sweatpants,” performed well in March.
And perhaps not a big surprise, Budweiser’s ad that promised free beer for a vaccination became popular, too.
But after a few months, most people knew about the vaccines, and the ads started to slack off.
“I think once you create awareness among the most willing population to get it, then you have to re-evaluate and try something different,” Cassillo said.
The people who were enthusiastic got the vaccine.
Now, there are two broad groups of the unvaccinated left in the US, explained Leonard Berry a distinguished professor of marketing at Texas A&M University and a senior fellow at the Institute for Healthcare Improvement. One is the group that says they will never get vaccinated, many for political reasons.
Those who can still be persuaded fit into a few broad categories. They are more often young people, people with lower incomes, members of different minority groups, and people who live in rural areas.
“The persuadables are not against it for political reasons. It’s mostly because it’s inconvenient, or they think ‘I’m healthy, I don’t need it, I’m not going to get it.’ Or they just haven’t paid much attention,” Berry explains. “Conventional advertising is not the most effective medium for reaching and persuading with either of these groups.”
Trustworthiness and credibility are also a big concern, and there is what Keller calls “Low source credibility” for Covid messages right now.
“The message source’s ability or motivation to provide accurate and truthful information is in doubt,” Keller said. “So, if people don’t believe that the person providing the message has the ability or the motivation to give them what is accurate and truthful information you’re going to doubt the message.”
There were a group of ads that Republicans and Libertarian audiences did not find persuasive at all, according to research from iSpot. They did not think highly of an Ad Council ad featuring US presidents, Republican and Democrats who encouraged people to get the vaccine.
And even when Pfizer tugged at heartstrings about the vaccinated’s ability to finally hug someone they loved, or see the next grandkid, this audience was not moved and considered it among the least persuasive ads they had seen in the pandemic.
Keller explains that at some point the Covid-19 ads stopped working as well due to what’s known in the advertising business as “seizing and freezing.”
“Seizing and freezing occurs when someone just seizes on the idea that this is a Covid message, and they basically freeze all subsequent processing and don’t pay any more attention or process the rest of the message,” Keller explained. “Essentially, they think, ‘I have a strong belief about Covid. Yes, this is a Covid message, I’m done.'”
Research from iSpot showed that the ads were more persuasive and likeable with Democrats than they were with Republicans, Libertarians, and independents and non-voters. Republicans more often found the ads either “dishonest or incredulous,” according to Sammi Scharninghausen, a brand analyst with iSpot.
“You know, like a little hard to believe, skeptical, with very little, kind of, inspiring or heartfelt reaction,” Scharninghausen said. “It kind of echoes what we see with the persuasion scores.”
A Monday Monmouth University national poll showed 31% of Republicans saying they will likely never get the vaccine.
What seems to be working better than broad TV advertising now is targeted messaging and hyper local efforts, according to Heidi Arthur, the chief campaign development officer with the Ad Council, the charitable arm of the advertising industry that brought the world Smokey the Bear and McGruff the Crime Dog.
The Ad Council has a long history encouraging good public health behavior. In the 1950’s it used celebrities like Elvis Presley, Dick Van Dyke, and Ella Fitzgerald on ads that ran on the networks to promote the polio vaccine. But the world isn’t divided into three networks anymore and a message needs to reach people on multiple platforms. Younger people are not really watching network TV anymore.
So, rather than a broad ad, the Ad Council is much more focused on what they call the “ground game.” Coalition building, targeting programs to particular audiences in communities that haven’t been reached with messages from voices they trust.
“It’s not just about the ads, they’re critically important, but really carrying those same research-based messages through to events, to toolkits that can really be used by communities that need this message,” Arthur said.
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