The Drum Awards Festival - Extended Deadline

-d -h -min -sec

COVID-19 Marketing

Why are the young allergic to the UK government’s Covid ads?

By Joe Wade, Managing Director and Co-Founder

October 29, 2021 | 5 min read

Joe Wade, co-founder of Don’t Panic London examines whether MullenLowe’s work for the UK government’s Covid communications is really value for the taxpayer’s money.


Why are the young immune to Covid campaigns?

What’s increasing faster, new Covid cases or MullenLowe’s billings? Well, the latter increased by 714% off the back of the sweet Cabinet Office Covid contract. That’s an increase in numbers not seen since Matt Hancock was in charge of keeping infections down. We’re talking most of a £151m boost in new billings that catapulted MullenLowe to the top of the agency new business league.

It’s just not helpful when publications like Private Eye make unkind remarks about their work – when people say they didn’t know old rope could cost so much, or that an Apprentice contestant, on the advertising episode, could do better. Knocking out tricolon after tricolon can’t be easy, especially classics like ‘Enjoy Summer Safely’. They’ve got a bit of alliteration in there and managed to keep it basically meaningless. It’s harder than it looks.

What about ​​’Then, Now, Always’ for NHS England, that’s definitely worth approximately 1400 hip replacements. To demonstrate their versatility they also had a crack at prepping the country for Brexit with: ‘Check, Change, Go.’ Which helped ensure zero disruption for businesses once we left the EU.

I’m not bitter about it at all... who’d want all that cash for coming up with three word slogans that don’t even require Although it does raise an interesting question because the government has, to use the PM’s timeless expression, been spaffing the cash on comms since the pandemic, but is still failing to reach and convince hesitant young audiences to get vaccinated.

According to NHS England, up to July 22 only 66% of 18-29% have had their first jab, which is about 20% lower than the whole population. Infection rates are highest among 20-29 year olds. How’s this happening and why are these audiences preferring alternative ‘facts’ delivered by people with zero budget?

Three word slogans aren’t the only problem. The government’s public service adverts and campaigns are too traditional in terms of creative, format and media approach to even reach younger audiences.

‘Look Into My Eyes’ was a campaign from early this year, spearheaded by a powerful TVC, in which healthcare workers and patients in masks stare at the camera and describe the toll the virus has taken. In case you haven’t heard young people aren’t watching broadcast TV and so this probably passed them by entirely. Given the ad paysoff at the end of the 30-seconds means there’s no hope of it working well online because it’s completion rates will be super low, a fact compound by it being far too literal and on the nose. If you want to arrest people’s interest, before converting their opinion, you need to repackage an issue to draw in new audiences.

A suicide prevention campaign we created for Childline featured a film called ‘Ten Things Guys Don’t Talk About’. It started off being really lols before taking a serious turn, but by then audiences were hooked in. It went to the top of Reddit and we switched off the paid media due to so much demand.

Social content is more relevant as the battle for younger people’s upper arms is taking place on Instagram, where young audiences face a combination of: celebrities and England footballers saying their bodies are vaccine free temples; vaccine misinformation propagated by bad actors (think state sponsored Russian trolls rather than Madonna); and an algorithm that doubles down on serving up misinformation. In the face of this billboards and newspaper ads are like fighting fire with an informative chat from the fire safety officer.

Traditional media is broadly pointless now because older people have a high rate of vaccination, and in fact the best way left to protect them is to convince their young associates to get a jab. The social arena needs to be won. Stripping away traditional campaign identities and government branding, giving influencers free reign to reinterpret creative for their followers. To paraphrase Michael ‘Gurner’ Gove, the people of this country have had enough of facts and so campaigns and content need to be fact based but led by emotions and humour to make it shareable.

Let’s tell the positive story of vaccinations in a way that counteracts the current narrative to make the vaccine synonymous with wellness. With government debt running at a gazillion, fafillion pounds the taxpayer has funded enough and this should all be paid for by the social networks, who should also be fined for every piece of misinformation on their platforms! Mullenlowe should kick in a few quid too.

If you’d like one of our exclusive pro-vaxx t-shirts visit our site and click the contact link, specifying size and your vaccine.

COVID-19 Marketing

More from COVID-19

View all


Industry insights

View all
Add your own content +