'Loving thy neighbor:' New ads urge conservative men with vaccine doubts to get their COVID shots
WASHINGTON – The federal government and nonprofits are unveiling ad campaigns to counter vaccine hesitancy, emphasizing educational partnerships at the grassroots level.
The Ad Council and COVID Collaborative will unveil a vaccine education campaign specifically targeting conservative and religious Americans, who polls have shown are especially vaccine-hesitant populations. The program is a part of the partnership's larger effort in educating the public on the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.
"Conservatives are not a monolithic group," John Bridgeland, founder of the COVID Collaborative, told USA TODAY. "There is a large moveable middle of those who may get vaccinated if they haven’t gotten it already."
At the same time, the Department of Health and Human Services announced its "We Can Do This" campaign Thursday, a federal effort partnering with dozens of local groups across the country to combat vaccine hesitancy.
The news comes as COVID-19 vaccines become increasingly available across the U.S., a step that public health experts stress will end the coronavirus pandemic only if a critical mass of Americans also takes a vaccine.
Mitch McConnell, Sarah Palin urge Republicans to take pandemic seriously
Polls show white Republicans are among the most vaccine hesitant populations in the country, while communities of color also often show high levels of vaccine skepticism.
Some Republican leaders, including Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., and former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie have expressed concerns about those doubts.
"As a Republican man, I took the vaccine as soon as I was eligible, and certainly would urge all the rest to do it," McConnell said Wednesday, calling on fellow Republican men join him in ending the pandemic.
Others have encouraged conservatives to take public health measures, like mask-wearing.
"I strongly encourage everyone to use common sense to avoid spreading this and every other virus out there," former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin said Wednesday after announcing she had contracted the virus.
'Trust is at the core of hesitancy'
The new campaigns will work with community leaders, faith groups and trusted medical experts to persuade Americans to get a vaccine shot.
The Biden administration's program will build on a national media campaign and expand to further incorporate targeted messaging on social media as well as outreach to local community leaders and medical groups. The Ad Council-COVID Collaborative effort explicitly focuses on conservative communities, emphasizing education and community relationships in the effort.
Though conservatives and evangelical Christians are being vaccinated at close to the average national rate, recent polls have found high levels of vaccine hesitancy among both groups.
Recent data from the Ad Council found 64% of conservative Americans are resistant, skeptical or uncertain about getting a COVID-19 vaccine. A study by the Ad Council and Langer Research Associates also found that 57% of evangelicals have taken, or intend to take, a COVID-19 vaccine, compared with 77% of nonevangelicals. White evangelicals are also twice as likely, at 30%, to say they will definitely not get the vaccine, compared with 15% of evangelicals of color.
While much of the hesitancy may be attributed to some prominent conservatives' initial reluctance to embrace vaccines, researchers also believe vaccine hesitancy may stem from conservative and religious Americans not being approached in a culturally and ideologically conscious manner.
“Trust is at the core of hesitancy, and who people trust depends on who they are," said Lisa Sherman, president and CEO of the Ad Council. The groups have partnered with faith-based organizations, prominent community figures and celebrities to promote the COVID-19 across a range of cultures.
The Ad Council-COVID Collaborative ad campaign will cooperate with the National Association of Evangelicals; the social impact group Values Partnership; the faith-community focused public affairs firm Public Square Strategies; and Redeeming Babel, a Christian advocacy group.
The partnership is working with major organizations, including Walmart and Walgreens, to address hesitancy among their workforces and communities. The group is also connecting with local rural organizations to distribute content.
"We knew it was never going to be a one-size-fits-all proposition," Sherman said. "We wanted to really nuance (the campaign) and approach each audience with something that felt culturally relevant to them."
Sharing information on vaccines is key
The research found that vaccine-hesitant conservatives are often amenable to a vaccine if they are provided more information, leading the Ad Council and COVID Collaborative to focus on vaccine education to boost uptake.
“The one thread that runs through every single group is that medical experts are the ones who people trust the most," Sherman noted, explaining how the campaign will enlist local medical practitioners to help promote accurate information about the COVID-19 and ways to end the pandemic.
Offering basic facts about the vaccines, specifically those around how clinical trials were conducted, the science of vaccine development, as well as the widespread support of COVID-19 vaccines by doctors all help combat vaccine hesitancy among these groups.
Bridgeland noted the group's studies have found that oftentimes, informing people about the vaccine development process and acknowledging areas where the science is unclear help build trust with many conservatives.
"When you tell folks that the number of (people tested in COVID-19) vaccine trials was three to four times as high as in other trials, and that the efficacy is 90 to 95%, close to 100%, they start to open up," Bridgeland said.
Vaccines and individual freedoms
Researchers also noted that conservatives especially value individual liberties and may see taking a COVID-19 vaccine as limiting their individual freedoms.
"These communities we are discussing really value their freedom," Bridgeland said, noting that many conservatives are resistant to what they might perceive as "indoctrination."
"A vaccine that protects you and your family leads to more freedom and for the religious, there is an element of loving thy neighbor," he said.
Many conservative evangelical Christians have also expressed hesitancy to taking a COVID-19 vaccine, a trend sites like Redeeming Babel's "ChristiansandtheVaccine.com" seek to counter by informing communities from a culturally relevant perspective.
'We Can Do This' campaign addresses vaccine doubts at local level
The Biden administration wants to target vaccine skepticism among a range of groups. The partnerships unveiled by HHS operate at both the national and local levels.
The administration will partner with the American Medical Association and the National Council of Urban Indian Health; sports leagues like MLB, NASCAR, NFL and WWE; labor unions; two dozen rural organizations, faith and veterans' groups; as well as Asian-American Pacific Islander, Black, Latino, Native American organizations, among others.
The massive operation also enlists celebrity influencers and a social media campaign to connect with Americans across different mediums. The White House is airing multiple ads, including one in Spanish, online and in multiple markets across the country.
The national blitz, however, is underscored by the administration's "COVID-19 Community Corps," a grassroots network that officials hope will help connect medical experts and local leaders to help raise public understanding and trust of vaccines. Vice President Kamala Harris and Surgeon General Vivek Murthy met Thursday with 275 inaugural members of the group to kick off the strategy.
The administration has acknowledged there are limits to how its messaging can address vaccine hesitancy, especially among Republicans. White House press secretary Jen Psaki noted during a March 12 press briefing that a Democratic administration "may not be the most effective communicators to hard-core supporters of the previous president."
Biden has also expressed a desire to see more conservative leaders, including former President Donald Trump, help promote public health guidelines like mask-wearing and accepting a vaccination.
“I discussed it with my team, and they say the thing that has more impact than anything Trump would say to the MAGA folks is what the local doctor, what the local preachers, what the local people in the community say,” Biden said on March 15.