July 15, 2021
Whatcom council axes young adult social media COVID campaign despite vaccination success
Ella Banken

One image in a social media campaign featuring public health messages around COVID-19 developed to reach young adults called out medical professionals in recognition of Nurses Day. (Courtesy Whatcom County Health Department)

July 15, 2021
Whatcom council axes young adult social media COVID campaign despite vaccination success
Ella Banken

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In January, Whatcom County began an awareness campaign to engage young adults with information about COVID-19 safety. On June 29, a tie vote by the county council nixed an extension of the campaign.

Inspired by COVID-19 IRL (In Real Life), an effort led by the Associated Students of Western Washington University, the goal of the campaign was to deliver information to young adults via peer-to-peer, nonauthoritative sources. (See also “Masked young adults key to beating COVID in the long term,” Salish Current, Feb. 26, 2021.)

The campaign by DH Marketing, based in Spokane, focuses primarily on videos and ads on Instagram, Snapchat and streaming services, according to Jennifer Moon, communications specialist for the Whatcom County Health Department. Some campaign materials have been promoted by a limited number of participating businesses. 

Ads feature bright, humorous slogans like “Surround yourself with tacos, not people” and “Cancel COVID”. Some included expletives, a strategy outlined in the campaign to try and reach a broader audience, specifically young adults. 

“A mid-campaign progress report in May indicated that Instagram ads had reached approximately 70% of the 18-26 youth population in Whatcom County. Snapchat ads reached approximately 56%,” Moon wrote in an email.

Tie vote

The county council failed to approve the request to enter into a contract amendment which would award an additional $106,250 to the campaign, to bring the total to $306,250. The amendment needed an affirmative vote from the majority and failed, with three ayes (Barry Buchanan, Carol Frazey and Todd Donovan) and three nays (Kathy Kershner, Tyler Byrd and Ben Elenbaas); Rud Browne abstained.

The campaign has funds remaining from the initial $200,000 appropriated, according to Moon. With that, they hope to continue running ads that were previously produced. The campaign’s level of engagement falls in line with similar campaigns based on industry standards, according to Moon. 

The focus of Western’s COVID-19 IRL campaign was based on a 2020 September survey conducted by public health assistant professor Steve Bennett. The survey found that only 40.8% of young adults reported physical distancing in private and 44.7% of young adults reported mask wearing when around friends and family they do not live with.

In contrast, 67.2% of adults 27 and over reported social distancing in private and 57.7% reported wearing masks in private.

Overall, more than 81.2% of all people surveyed also reported compliance with other actions, like avoiding public gatherings, wearing masks in public and socially distancing in public. 

All about information

Kershner expressed concern that the campaign censored information regarding COVID-19 and vaccinations, and felt coercive. “Education would be great, [but] I think it’s a far stretch to say that those slides have anything to do with education,” she said in reference to the campaign ads. “There wasn’t much information in them other than ‘be cool and get your shot’.”

Donovan disagreed, and expressed the view that the campaign is needed. He noted that a marketing campaign is a specific strategy to provide information to a specific audience.

While Byrd worried that campaign messages were repetitive and that effectiveness of the campaign thus far was unknown, Moon reported that one of the successful aspects of the campaign has been providing information about vaccination sites. Efforts were adapted to target young adults living in areas with lower vaccination rates. Some of the highest levels of engagement were achieved with content that promoted pop-up clinics. 

Health department staff said they plan to work with Bennett to evaluate the campaign once it is completed.

The department announced this week that as of July 10, 70.1% of Whatcom residents 16 and older have initiated vaccination, and 54.5%  are fully vaccinated, meaning “nearly half of the county isn’t fully protected against COVID-19.” The announcement also cautioned that the highly infectious Delta variant has been detected in the county.