Look around you: there’s probably at least one mask lying around. We’ve been finding them in our jacket pockets, in the dryer, and on the floor of our car. In fact, masks have become such a part of our everyday lives that we barely notice them anymore.
However, one thing we did notice is that Mask Up campaigns are still lingering around digital ads for the US Department of Health and Human Services, the CDC, the California Department of Public Health, and the City of New York.
Pathmatics Explorer collects data for each of these advertisers, so let’s explore how their advertising strategies have evolved over the course of the pandemic.
When did advertisers begin running ads to support COVID-19 safety initiatives?
The US government started running ads to support COVID-19 safety initiatives in March 2020 — right around the time we were stocking up on toilet paper and canned goods.
As you can see, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) started ramping up its advertising in March and April. Spending topped out at $20.1 million in May — coinciding with the first wave of coronavirus cases — but then dropped off almost as quickly as it had risen. The CDC slowly started increasing its coronavirus advertising again in October, perhaps in preparation for the holiday season.
The US Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) was much slower to respond to the pandemic in its advertising. While we did see some COVID-19 related ads from HHS starting in March, its overall ad spending hovered just slightly above pre-pandemic levels until October. This isn’t entirely surprising given that the pandemic was highly politicized at the federal level. HHS’ spending reached its highest level in January 2021 at $9.7 million.
Like the CDC, the California Department of Public Health (CDPH) joined the COVID-19 conversation in March, spending $2 million on ads in June 2020. It feels significant that this spike in spending coincides with the rise in cases in California. We saw the same trend repeated in January, as both new coronavirus cases and CDPH advertising spend rose to their highest levels since the pandemic began.
Looking at historical trends, you’ll notice that the City of New York had a lot to say about coronavirus in April 2020. This makes sense since New York City was one of the first places in the US to feel the impact of the pandemic. Digital advertising ramped up again in December and January, likely in response to the second wave of cases looming over the city.
It’ll be interesting to watch these trends over the next few months, but for now, let’s take a closer look at how COVID-19 ads have evolved over the last year.
How have ads evolved from the start of the pandemic to present day?
Looking at the top creatives as a whole, the content being promoted by the US government is about what you’d expect: staying home, wearing a mask, and social distancing.
The CDC’s messaging has stayed pretty consistent since the start of the pandemic. Taking the top spot in terms of spend is this creative promoting the hashtag #AloneTogether and reminding Americans that “staying home saves lives”:
This ad has been running since March of last year and has received $10.5 million in spend and 906.8 million impressions.
The CDC first mentioned masks in its digital ads in April — around the same time the agency started recommending that people wear face coverings in public.
The US Department of Health and Human Services, on the other hand, didn’t mention masks at all until July. Interestingly, HHS only promoted six of its COVID-19 ads with enough budget to make its top 10 creatives list. The remaining four creatives don’t acknowledge the pandemic at all; they are part of its vaping prevention campaign.
What’s more, all six of these ads started running on January 23, 2021 — only days after the inauguration. No surprise there, given that the Biden administration promised to “move quickly to contain the COVID-19 crisis” and HHS’ advertising is reflective of that.
At the state level, the California Department of Public Health heavily promoted its “Answer the Call” campaign for contact tracing - something we haven’t seen at all at the federal level. Obviously California sees contact tracing as a key strategy to slow the spread of COVID-19.
Notably, four of CDPH’s top 10 ads are not in English — as seen in this Facebook post below:
Clearly, California has made it a priority to get COVID-19 messages out to all its citizens regardless of what language they speak.
Like California, The City of New York ran COVID-19 ads in multiple languages. Four of its top 10 ads appear in languages other than English to ensure that everyone has the information they need to stay safe. It also took things a step further by including symbols to promote better comprehension across language barriers.
The City of New York’s messaging strategy has been pretty consistent since March of last year, reminding New Yorkers to stay home unless they are essential workers or need urgent health care. However, we noticed that its top ad by spend only started running on December 3, 2020:
As you can see, this ad urges people to separate themselves if they’re feeling sick or have been exposed to COVID-19 — even offering a free hotel room to help people quarantine safely.
The pandemic is still evolving, and so are US government advertising strategies. With a new administration in the White House and a vaccine on the way, we’ll keep an eye on what these agencies have to say about COVID-19.
*Data gathered from Pathmatics Explorer from January 1, 2020 to February 21, 2021
With over a decade of experience across digital marketing, content, creative, and PR, Sarah is a creative and dynamic thinker who loves to delight clients with unique and relatable content. Sarah graduated from UC Berkeley with a BA in Sociology.