The Ad Council has led the industry’s response to the COVID-19 crisis by building an unprecedented coalition of partners that has generated $200 million in donated, earned and social media—with messages that have been seen 10 billion times.
As part of these ongoing efforts, two Ad Council campaigns address mental health and isolation: “#AloneTogether,” which gives people the tools to stay connected with each other while staying home and social distancing, and “Seize the Awkward,” which empowers young people to check in with friends who might be struggling with their mental health—even if they can’t connect in person right now.
To discuss learnings about mental health messaging from these efforts, Ad Council President and CEO Lisa Sherman sat down with “#AloneTogether” partner Jacqueline Parkes, CMO and EVP, digital studios, entertainment and youth brands, at ViacomCBS; “Seize the Awkward” partner Kevin Brady, executive creative director at Droga5; and online influencer Giannina Gibelli, who appeared in Netflix’s “Love Is Blind” and is now in an “#AloneTogether” PSA.
Lisa Sherman: It’s clear that the mental health implications of the COVID-19 pandemic will be vast and far-reaching. Jacqueline and Kevin, what do you feel are the most important steps we can take with messaging right now and in the months ahead?
Jacqueline Parkes: From the beginning, we designed the “#AloneTogether” campaign to be a social and talent-driven campaign supported by the message that social distancing doesn’t have to mean social isolation—we wanted to encourage people to stay home to help save lives and develop a platform where we can unite, be informed and feel a sense of community through entertainment. Our brands reach in excess of 600 million social followers across platforms so we knew we had a massive opportunity to reach young people where they are. Everything that we’ve done, from MTV’s “Unplugged at Home” to “The Daily Social Distancing Show With Trevor Noah,” ladders up to that idea.
We found through our MTV research that Americans are experiencing a 37 percent drop in mental wellness since mid-March, especially women and younger people, with 56 percent not seeking help. For our “#AloneTogether” campaign, we used learnings from our work in this space, and since we're talking to people who are new to these feelings, we sought to give permission to feel this way—using the message, “It’s OK to not be OK”—and, more importantly, to provide resources and tools to help.
Kevin Brady: We find ourselves in a time when we are forced to think about our own physical well-being above all else. But there’s a very real danger in not giving our mental health needs the attention they deserve. So I think the most important step we can take as an industry is to normalize these discussions about mental health and to encourage each of us to check in on a friend.
With our new “Seize the Awkward” work, we remind our audience that you don’t need to be there to be there. Just because we can’t physically be with one another doesn’t mean we can’t be there for each other emotionally.
Sherman: Giannina, one of the challenges we all face in trying to connect with each other right now is that we often can’t do so in person—but social media can be a powerful tool. As someone who is so directly engaged with your followers on a personal level, what can you share about your content strategy in this moment?
Giannina Gibelli: I’m really taking the time to listen to my followers to see what they care about, and I’m trying to offer new ways of coping with self-isolation—I wanted to help with the mental stress that quarantine and a pandemic can bring, so I've focused my content around creative ways people can spend their time.
Sherman: Jacqueline, what does the feedback you’ve received around “#AloneTogether” tell us about how the work is being received?
Parkes: Hundreds of companies have been using the “#AloneTogether” creative assets developed by MTV and the ViacomCBS entertainment and youth brands, including Google, WarnerMedia, Verizon Media, NBCUniversal, Snapchat and Target. Across ViacomCBS, there have been more than 31,700 linear spots that have aired globally across all platforms. On social, there have been nearly 11,000 posts resulting in more than 450 million video views and more than a billion impressions. In a study from the MTV Insights team, 64 percent of people who are familiar with “#AloneTogether” say they took an action as a result of our campaign.
Sherman: And Kevin, “Seize the Awkward” is just launching its new COVID-specific work. What kind of feedback are you hoping to see?
Brady: Those of us in advertising have become masters of finding various ways to illustrate the impact of our work. Our case studies are filled with references to millions of impressions. But when it comes to mental health in a time of crisis, we don’t need just exposure—we need action. We need people to feel empowered to take a chance and reach out to a friend if they suspect that person may be struggling. This metric happens one person at a time in one vital conversation after the other.
To encourage this interaction, we didn’t want to lecture or to create overly earnest work that would fall on deaf ears. Instead, we spoke in the language of music videos, GIFs, illustrations and TikTok stars, and we spoke in a positive and colorful way. So far, all indications show that our campaign seems to be connecting with our target audience.
Sherman: Giannina, what is your sense of how your followers are feeling right now?
Gibelli: People care a lot—they want us to all do our part. Some people are misinformed, some are afraid, but everyone wants this to be a thing of the past.
Sherman: Social media, Zoom calls, group chats—more than ever, we’re relying on our screens to stay connected. How can the industry use digital tools in the right way to ensure we are fostering positive connections?
Parkes: With “#AloneTogether,” our teams are constantly looking to connect our fans and followers to talent and each other at a time when people feel so far apart. We look at the communities we have across Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, Twitch, and tailor our approach accordingly. MTV’s Instagram Live jam sessions give fans a live performance each week with artist covers and Q&A. Our Wednesday Music Festivals on Twitch provide an outlet for those missing out on postponed shows with friends, and daily threads on Twitter provide direct, one-on-one engagement with followers looking for a pick-me-up.
Brady: Digital platforms are often used to show our best sides, but we can use digital platforms as vehicles to connect when we’re not feeling our best.
With “Seize the Awkward,” we wanted to let people know that, even though it can sometimes feel awkward, reaching out to a friend in need is incredibly important. So we created a number of ways to break the ice on the platforms our audience communicates on. For example, we created 47 unique GIFs and stickers that can be sent in a text or DM to break the ice, and we created a song that can be shared with friends via streaming platforms. Our music video then goes a step further and emulates the many ways to reach out to a friend and the positive effect it can have.
These are just some of the ways our industry can have a radical impact—our industry should encourage positive, productive interactions and make way for real, honest conversations, especially when it comes to mental health.
Sherman: That sounds like the perfect note to end on. This is going to be such an important issue now and in the coming months, but it’s so inspiring to see so many brilliant, thoughtful people stepping up to help however they can.