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To Make Ads Connect in COVID Era, Minnesota Agencies Go for Jugular

Published on December 10th, 2020

This article, written by Dee DePass, originally appeared in the Star Tribune. 

Seventeen hospital operators including M Health Fairview, North Memorial and HealthPartners launched a TV commercial on Monday showing nurses tending to dying patients with the sound of breathing and beeping monitors in the background.

A nurse looks into the camera and says, “Maybe you didn’t want the responsibility. But we need to be really clear about this. We are not the front line. You are. We are your last chance.”

Alarmed with spiking infections and the prospect of holiday travelers flocking to airports, the Minnesota health care providers last month turned to Minneapolis-based Carmichael Lynch (CML) ad agency for help to deliver a blunt message to the public.

The $3 million “FightCovidMN” ads aim to shake people up, said Scott Weber, chief marketing officer at M Health Fairview in Minneapolis.

“We saw this spike, this second surge coming. The crisis is here now. The time to be politically correct and polite had long since past,” Weber said. “We felt the best platform for that was advertising.”

As the pandemic rages into its ninth month, the health care providers’ campaign is among a growing number of multimillion-dollar ad campaigns tailored to connect with the shifting moods of a COVID-weary marketplace. With the health crisis spiraling out of control, the state of Minnesota, city of Minneapolis, product makers, hospitals and even food shelves are turning to social media and TV messaging to penetrate pandemic malaise, gain compliance and reshape behaviors.

The CML-crafted campaign backed by FightCovidMN partners that debuted Monday stands out for its direct approach.

The ad was “highly unusual,” said CML Chief Creative Officer Marty Senn. “I think that ads have been dancing around [the public’s refusal to all wear masks, stay home and distance] and taking a friendly approach to COVID. But we heard loud and clear from [hospitals] that things are not working and it’s time to stop and pay attention. If [our spot] means ruffling some feathers, we are willing to do that.”

CML’s “fear-based” ad was effective and “dramatic” but “not overdone,” said Colle McVoy Chief Creative Officer Mike Caguin, who has been guiding his own firm’s contributions to COVID messaging.

This summer, the Ad Council, which produces, distributes and promotes public service announcements, asked Colle to create a “serious” but “hopeful” COVID TV commercial seeking donations for Feeding America.

Featuring black and white photographs of Americans in food lines as artist Ciara sings a soul-stirring “I Got You,” the ad runs through March in a campaign valued at $10 million.

“COVID is obviously directly impacting people. The opportunity to help save lives is something we couldn’t turn down,” Caguin said. The Ad Council asked Colle McVoy to produce a second ad encouraging mask wearing that is expected to air early next year.

When the challenge isn’t quite life and death, some Minnesota ad agencies are taking a very different approach to COVID-19: humor.

Doug DeGrood, founder of the former GdB ad agency in Minneapolis, produced an ad for shirtmaker Hammer Made spoofing America’s new sloppy COVID work-at-home wear.

The 15-second video shows a nicely dressed guy signing off from a Zoom meeting, only to have him end the call, stand up, and reveal he’s clad only in underwear and fuzzy unicorn slippers. The ad implores consumers that, even with the pandemic, it’s “Time To Get Dressed.”

“There’s a real story here about what COVID-19 is doing and has done to the apparel industry,” said DeGrood. “They are all scrambling to change their assortments, moving away from suits and jackets toward ‘athleisure’ and dressy casual. But, more than anything, everyone can relate to the Zoom attire: business on top, party on the bottom!”

In June, the state of Minnesota hired Minneapolis-based Clarity Coverdale Fury to run a $9 million public awareness advertising campaign, which debuted in July, to remind Minnesotans to wear masks, socially distance and answer the phone when health care providers call.

Meanwhile, Weber at M Health Fairview said FightCOVIDMN hospitals are working on new public-service announcements aimed at urging the public to get vaccinated.

“The messages we are using today, we think are going to work,” Weber said. “But if we get a couple of weeks into this and the [infection] numbers are not going down, we are going to try something else.”