Well-targeted or shallow – are pro-vax campaigns aimed at young people hitting the mark?

The Government has launched a campaign urging under-18s to get vaccinated, but are pro-vax campaigns aimed at younger people hitting the mark? PRWeek looks at the challenges, and possible solutions, for public bodies and others hoping to encourage more young people to get vaccinated.

People arrive at the London Bridge Vaccination Centre on 9 August after coronavirus vaccinations were extended to 16- and 17-year-olds (photo by Tolga Akmen/AFP via Getty Images)
People arrive at the London Bridge Vaccination Centre on 9 August after coronavirus vaccinations were extended to 16- and 17-year-olds (photo by Tolga Akmen/AFP via Getty Images)

With ongoing support from TikTok, MTV and companies such as Asda, Deliveroo and Uber, health chiefs are hoping more young people aged 16 and 17 will get vaccinated against COVID-19.

The latest campaign, which is aimed at both parents and teenagers, is being rolled out across social media platforms including Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat this week, with radio ads on stations such as Kiss, Capital, Heart,  Absolute and LBC having gone to air on Saturday 11 September.

MTV has also thrown its weight behind the activity, with Club MTV, in collaboration with the NHS, throwing an exclusive free gig. The Reunion, which takes place on Wednesday 15 September with headliners Rudimental and Young T and Bugsey, is for people aged 18 to 30 who have had both their jabs.

According to the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC), more than half of 16- to 17-year-olds in England have already received their first injection – just over four weeks after the green light was given for the age group to be offered the vaccine.

The NHS is texting millions of teenagers inviting them to come forward for a jab, with the DHSC claiming advice and information on the benefits have been “shared at every opportunity, including through a range of partnerships with industries catering for predominantly younger audiences”.

The key messaging for 16- and 17-year-olds is: "Don't miss out on half-term plans, good times and the COVID-19 jab."

And parents are being reassured the vaccine keeps everyone safe, protects families and keeps teenagers' "life on track".

But Ayesha Baker, a healthcare comms professional working in the NHS, does not believe the campaign is strong enough to “100 per cent increase uptake”.

She tells PRWeek: “I don't think they've really made it very clear why under-18s actually need the vaccine unless they’re deemed to be vulnerable. I feel like there's still a lot that's not being said.

“And I think the messaging comes across quite shallow. The plans that they have to put on concerts and all that sort of stuff – I mean, it kind of just assumes that all young people want to do is party.

“I thought about it in comparison to the messaging that was out there for the older population, which I feel was more in-depth.

“And there was a lot more information about the fact that getting it will stop you from ending up seriously ill in hospital.

“You know, even the fact of how it affects BAME people more adversely? I thought there was just more information [back then], so it feels a bit like something's missing.

"For older people, it was like: ‘OK, well, I'm going to get [the vaccine] so I don't die, and so I don't end up in intensive care,’ whereas with a young person it’s like: 'For what’?

“Last year, it was very much like: ‘Oh, it doesn't affect young people, young people will be fine, you won’t have symptoms.’ It’s a lot of mixed messaging. And I think that's probably where the hesitancy will come, because there's just a lot of confusion.

“They haven't really made the reasons very clear. If it’s the case that the Delta variant is the reason why that’s now being pushed on younger people, then let them know that – that they actually are at risk. A lot of the conversations that I've heard are young people – even people, I guess, in their early 20s – it's a bit like: ‘Oh, I'll be fine.’”

Messaging

Shayoni Lynn, chief executive of Lynn PR, which launched a ‘Don’t Miss Your Vaccine’ campaign in July for its client Our Healthier South East London to encourage young people to get their jab, also feels messaging for young people generally has been “mixed”.

She says: “The young people we spoke to when we were putting together our campaign told us they felt quite disgruntled by the negative press around young adults spreading the virus.

“Most of them are very conscientious and did everything they could to keep themselves and their communities, especially older and vulnerable people, safe.

“Also, the Prime Minister last year was telling them they weren’t at risk from the virus. They were being told they wouldn’t get as ill or become hospitalised.

“Then the Delta variant changed the dynamic because it was affecting young people more [than the original strain].

“The messaging then suddenly changed. I don’t think it was very clear from the beginning. It is difficult to claw back from a behaviour you’ve helped to create.”

Speaking about the latest campaign, Lynn says the approach of targeting under-18s via social media is “right”, but it's crucial that 16- and 17-year-olds are treated as young adults and not teenagers or children.

She says: “While targeting parents is appropriate, a lot of 16- and 17-year-olds will make their own decisions.

“We need to remind them of the fact that COVID-19 hasn’t gone away and we need to do everything we can to keep ourselves and others safe.”

A Department of Health and Social Care spokesperson said: “Our exceptional vaccine rollout has built a wall of defence across the country, saving over 112,000 lives, preventing 143,600 hospitalisations and stopping over 24 million infections in England alone.

“Four in five adults across the UK have now received both jabs and over half of 16 to 17-year-olds in England have been vaccinated with a first dose, ensuring they are protected as they return to schools, colleges and sixth forms.

“We continue to do everything we can to further increase vaccine uptake, including working with clinicians, vaccine experts, social media platforms, local authorities, faith groups and business to communicate the benefits of vaccination.”

As part of the campaign, the Government has partnered TikTok, which is working with Team Halo – a group of scientists using the platform – to provide the latest information on vaccines with what it calls “entertaining and shareable” videos. 

Rich Waterworth, general manager of TikTok UK and Europe, said the Team Halo outreach initiative will include a series of Q&As and LIVEs “with some of TikTok’s favourite vaccine scientists ready to answer all kinds of questions about the vaccine”.

Influencer

Both Baker and Lynn think choosing the right people to deliver the messages could change how those messages are perceived and how young people engage with them.

Lynn says: “We’ve found the way young people consume and perceive information is very different to those even slightly older than them.

“Channels like TikTok and Snapchat are very important, but it is who delivers those messages that could make a difference.

“We know young adults are very aware of influencers, especially micro-influencers over celebrity influencers – so it’s really about the messenger.

“It’s really important to build trust in transparency and messaging, and look at how to create a culture that is fact-based.”

And Baker says it is important to “pay attention to where [young people] are and taking the time to be present in the spaces that they're in.

“For example, what are the popular podcasts among younger people these days? Where can they have informed discussions? I feel like that's what is being missed, is the engagement side.”

She believes having discussions and conversations about the vaccine among those of a similar age group is equally important.

Baker stresses the importance of peer-to-peer engagement rather than messaging solely coming from an 'authority' source.

She explains: “Someone in my team who is 24 recently did a video where she went and spoke to her friends, and then came and put the questions from her friends to a doctor.

“I've also seen another video where there are lots of popular people from the BAME community, from podcasts and influencers, and that sort of stuff. They were having a chat among themselves about why they hadn't taken the vaccine as yet. And at the end of it, there was a girl who is a content creator... after the discussion she had with the person that she was paired with, she went and got her vaccine.

“I think [it’s about] actually engaging and hearing why they don’t want to [be vaccinated], and then being able to address those concerns directly.”

Hesitancy

The issue of uptake among non-white communities, especially among the black population, is significant. Recent data from the Office for National Statistics found black or black British adults had the highest rates of vaccine hesitancy: 21 per cent, versus four per cent for the white adult population.

Speaking about this discrepancy, Baker says she, being black herself, thinks the hesitancy comes from “the fact that the system and authority have never really worked for people like us".

She adds: “Even from school through to work, the police, how we're treated by health professionals – I think that's where the mistrust has come from.

“I feel like the mistrust is not something that's going to go away anytime soon – and… it's one of those things where [the Government] just needs to give facts and allow people across the board to be able to make up their own minds."

She continues: "Maybe it's about seeing more people like us doing it, sharing their reasons behind getting the jab and what persuaded them.

"I've had a lot of black people saying, yes, they have the hesitancy, but they probably will get it at some point – they just don't want to get it yet, they want to see how things pan out, which I think is fair enough.

"I think, though, there are some people out there who just don't want it. Unfortunately, I don't think you can convince them otherwise."

Universities

The pair’s comments come as universities use social media, pop-up vaccination sites on campus and even financial incentives to urge students to get their jabs before the start of the new term.

Sussex University is running a £5,000 prize draw for students who get the vaccine, with a spokesman saying it has had a “very positive response”, with many getting in touch to confirm their eligibility for the prizes.

The spokesman said: “We know that many of our students will have already had their vaccines, or are planning to.

“The vast majority of students have wanted to do the right thing throughout this pandemic: they’ve signed our community pledge, downloaded the NHS app, booked in for tests and complied with Track and Trace.

“Our vaccination pop-up centre before the end of term in May was hugely popular, with all the available spaces booked within two hours of us announcing them.”

The university is “hopeful” of a good vaccine take-up as a result of the £5,000 incentive and its work to “make it as easy as possible” for students to get the vaccine.

The Government has also partnered dating apps, social media platforms and companies such as Uber, Asda and Deliveroo on adverts and incentives to get the vaccine.

For example, Asda will offer £10 vouchers for its clothing brand George when 18- to 30-year-olds visit one of its three vaccination centres. People between the ages of 18 and 30 who visit one of the sites (at Watford, Cape Hill in Birmingham and Old Kent Road in London) to get their jab will be able to claim £10 off George clothing when they spend £20 or more in any Asda store.

And Deliveroo will distribute thousands of £5 vouchers to eligible customers over the coming weeks.

Vaccines minister Nadhim Zahawi says: “It is extremely encouraging to see the enthusiasm young people have shown in getting their life-saving vaccinations, and we want that to continue.

“We’re continuing to improve access and encourage uptake – with pop-up centres appearing in places of worship, music venues and sporting grounds – and continued support from major names such as TikTok is fantastic to see.”

According to the latest figures from the ONS, there was a fall in vaccine hesitancy among 16- to 17-year-olds in the period from 23 June to 18 July – coming in at 11 per cent, compared to 14 per cent in the previous period (26 May to 20 June).

Whatever concerns exist, everyone will hope the new campaign messaging and incentives will help continue that downward trend.

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