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Grabbing eyes to cover faces: COVID-19 ad campaign targets young adults

From left: Don Hamilton, with Hamilton Studio, directs a scene with local actor Rue Anmontha (right), Brick West Brewing’s Madison Throop and local actor Aaron Deonte (left) last Monday at Brick West Brewing in downtown Spokane. The filming was part of a public service announcement commissioned by the Spokane Regional Health District.  (Tyler Tjomsland/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)

A beer with a buddy at Brick West doesn’t have to needlessly put the waiter at risk.

A righteous 360 kickflip doesn’t have to spread a deadly virus to other skateboarders.

The Spokane Regional Health District is introducing the second in a three-part series of public service announcements directed at young adults, who disproportionately represent people diagnosed with COVID-19.

The 15-second ads are separate and more targeted than another prominent coronavirus awareness campaign in Spokane County, dubbed “Spread Kindness, Not COVID,” but are a part of the broader efforts of public health leaders to encourage local residents to take simple measures that can mitigate the spread of COVID-19.

The ads filmed for the health district’s young adult campaign not only encourage them to take ownership of the pandemic response and comply with public health guidelines, but demonstrate how to do so.

The first set of ads debuted in August, and the second will infiltrate the online experience of young adults soon on platforms including Instagram, Snapchat and Facebook.

The entire campaign is paid for with funds directed to the health district by the Spokane County Board of Commissioners through the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act.

The campaign was devised this summer, when public health officials started to see spikes in cases in young adults after major holidays and as Spokane County advanced to Phase 2 of Gov. Jay Inslee’s reopening plan.

The first set of 15-second ads featured young adults, in clips each filmed on a cellphone from inside their home, imploring their peers to take heed of public health guidance.

They poured into the social media feeds of young adults, encouraging them to be a part of the solution to the pandemic by wearing a mask.

“We control COVID,” one actor says.

A growing body of research shows that young people are not only not immune from the effects of COVID-19, but are likely to spread it to more vulnerable populations.

From June to August, adults between 20 and 29 years old accounted for more than 20% of confirmed COVID-19 cases nationwide, according to a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report released last week.

The same trend has played out locally, where people in their 20s account for 15% of the population but 25% of confirmed COVID-19 cases.

“We continue to see our cases disproportionately in the college-age demographic,” Spokane County Health Officer Dr. Bob Lutz said Monday.

The CDC report warned that upticks in transmission among young adults had preceded a rise in the number of older adults – more likely to end up in intensive care or die – who test positive for COVID-19.

But by changing behavior in social settings, public health officials believe they can make a dent in the spread of COVID-19, and make young adults less likely to pass the disease to those they work or live with.

The pitch

Normally, an ad campaign would go live only after a methodical process that includes research and focus groups to test the efficacy of the messaging.

“We just don’t have the luxury of that during the pandemic. You need messaging and you need it now,” said Kelli Hawkins, the public information officer for the health district who spearheaded the campaign.

Hawkins said the health district knew that it was trying to reach an innately skeptical audience when it comes to marketing, but one that is also well-educated and more connected to the world than any generation before. Although her team didn’t have time for a formal survey, Hawkins said it did reach out to young people to help develop the concept.

“By and large (the team) found out that they want to hear from their peers,” Hawkins said.

The concept was to use actors that young people can see themselves in, that are believable, and “show that we do hear you – it’s not awesome to wear masks. We get that. Is it hard? Not really,” Hawkins said.

The next set of ads shows young adults interacting in natural settings and demonstrates how they should act in various scenarios. At the skatepark, for example, a skater pulls up their mask when another approaches.

The takeaway, Hawkins said, is “there’s ways to live our life and still protect those around you.

‘’We’re not asking you to put on your mask always, all the time,” Hawkins said.

The first set of ads were spread across platforms including In- stagram, Facebook, Snapchat and YouTube, and streaming services like Hulu. Those who haven’t seen them shouldn’t fret – they’re hyper-targeted at young adults.

In the first two weeks, the campaign made over 160,000 impressions – meaning the ad was displayed but not necessarily clicked on – on Instagram alone. It also received more than 58,000 impressions on Snapchat and 82,000 on Facebook.

On Monday, a crew was at Brick West Brewing Co. in downtown Spokane, filming an ad that illustrates how to safely dine at an outdoor restaurant.

At the same time the health district is sharing messages about what needs to be done to slow the spread of COVID-19, it’s being forced to follow the same preventive measures for filming.

It’s complicated

Hamilton Studios, a Spokane-based photography and film studio, filmed the spot on Monday. The company has offered its services pro bono, and takes COVID-19 seriously while on set.

“Six feet? Fifteen feet is my number,” said Don Hamilton, the company’s owner and director of photography.

Because social distancing on set is paramount, everything is premeditated “unlike anything I’ve ever done,” Hamilton said. The company invested in a robot camera, allowing it to get close-ups without being near the actors.

“Everything we do is a strange choreography,” Hamilton said. “None of this is accidental.”

Hamilton also cares deeply that the ad is accurate, but that it also translates the right way to behave in the limited time available. For example, it’s important that the actor’s eye catches the approaching waiter, signaling to the viewer that he knew to pull up his mask before she arrived at the table.

“If you’re actually effective, you could actually save a life. I don’t want to overstate it, but the time is now,” Hamilton said.

The third part of the series is under development in partnership with Gonzaga University.