Where’s Madison Avenue’s COVID campaign?

By DAVID ZURAWIK | The Baltimore Sun | Published: August 11, 2020

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Like a lot of Americans, I am downhearted about the lack of progress on COVID-19 this summer. As one of the good little boys and girls who wore a mask, social distanced and only went out when it was necessary to buy groceries or medications, I am also angry at those who didn’t.

Here we are five months in with more than 5 million infections and more than 162,000 dead, and communities that have flattened the curve are seeing it rise again. Why can’t we tame this killer?

I am not a medical doctor or researcher, so I am not in a position to judge progress or lack of it in that realm. But I am a media critic, and the question that is driving me nuts is why we have not been able to come up with a media messaging campaign that is effective in getting people to do the few things that we know will get the virus under control, like wearing masks and social distancing.

Come on, this is the land of Madison Avenue and the home of Don Draper. We create ads that get men who work in offices and haul nothing heavier than bags of groceries home from the store to buy $50,000 jacked-up pickup trucks that can climb over boulders. We created ads that made women think smoking cigarettes was empowering them when there was plenty of evidence that it was in fact killing them. And in five months, all the media and advertising talent in this nation can’t get on the side of the angels and create something that would make people running around without masks see their anti-social and reckless behavior in a more responsible way?

I have been stewing about this since seeing an Aug. 7 report online at CNN.com saying the Department of Health and Human Services was about to launch a series of public service announcements featuring celebrities talking about COVID-19.

Michael Caputo, assistant secretary for public affairs at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, declined to name the celebrities, according to CNN. But he was quoted as to what an ad might look like.

“Maybe a football player in Houston will sit down and talk about Houston’s problems with Dr. Fauci. ... Or the surgeon general will be sitting on the Capitol Hill steps. We’ll have two cameras, one on him and one over his shoulder. He’ll be eating a sandwich. His iPad rings. He puts the sandwich down and he picks it up. And that rapper or football player or celebrity or rock ’n’ roll star or whoever it is will have two cameras on them in Atlanta, and they’ll ask Dr. Adams questions about COVID-19.”

Health and Human Services officials did not immediately respond to a request for an interview. And it is unfair to judge the product before it’s seen. But I have two thoughts based on the news of the campaign. Why is this only being done now after five months? And why is it being run by a government agency, when government agencies aren’t exactly known for the kind of campaigns that can compete in the media marketplace with the products of Madison Avenue and entertainment conglomerates like Disney?

To those who would point to President Donald Trump and the way he politicized masks as the reason why no government agency launched such a campaign earlier, I won’t disagree. The connection between the president and the agencies he controls is obvious. And he’s been perfectly willing to politicize agencies and not wear a mask.

But blaming Trump for almost everything that’s wrong in American life and stopping there is a mistake. It’s too easy and it obscures the more complicated truth that in some cases, as a people, we all share blame.

Look at World War II and the way Hollywood stepped up with its biggest stars, best directors, writers and promoters to sell war bonds and make films steeped in pro-American messages that are still delighting audiences on DVD today. Where was the advertising genius of Hollywood and the major entertainment conglomerates on face masks, social distancing and staying out of packed bars?

Think back to the 1960s and how an idealistic group of educators, public television producers and advertising experts decided to take the TV techniques used by Madison Avenue to sell children sugar-laden snacks and instead use it to teach letters and numbers to preschoolers. Where is the kind of genius that gave us “Sesame Street” on COVID-19 messaging?

The one thing we’ve known how to do since the arrival of TV in American living rooms in the 1950s is use it to affect behavior. Why didn’t we do it this time?

David Zurawik is The Baltimore Sun’s media critic.