The CDC’s $2. 4M Campus Marketing Program

Why did the CDC and ACHA feel it was appropriate to peddle a potentially risky drug to young people as if it were a lifestyle brand?

The DC-based marketing firm, Youth Marketing and advertising Connections (YMC), builds “ brand experiences for the next generation. ” “ Youth is We Do, ” claims their  website . “ We’re Well Connected, ” it assures prospective clients. “ We’re Gen-Z + Millennial experts— amplifying plus propelling today’s most relevant & exciting brands. ”

YMC’s website, through its strategic use of white space and color scheme of mostly light grays and soft blues, provides a glimpse of what the organization has to offer. Youthful images associated with teens and young adults – attractive, fun-loving, and diverse – decorate every web page as they peddle makeup, power drinks, and manufactured genuineness.

“ We ensure brands appeal to and excite youth audiences, ” says  one web page   of their site.  

YMC’s peer ambassadors are “ well connected, trusted, & deeply engaged in their communities, ” says  one more .

Under Armour, Sephora, MTV, Kate Spade, Bud Light, and AXE are just a few of the related and exciting  brands   YMC states have amplified and propelled over the past 20-plus years by making use of their legion of college student and young adult influencers and relationships with more than one, 000 colleges and universities. It makes sense exactly why brands like Maybelline, Corona, and Rockstar would acquire their services. It should come as no surprise to see Spotify, Adidas, and Hims outlined among those with which they’ve accomplished business.

Yet, one interesting name found on that list is that of the ACHA, the American College Health Association, an organization which  positions itself   as “ the particular voice for student health and wellness, ” but has a  history   of taking money through pharmaceutical companies and the CDC for collaborative projects, which usually critics claim lead to possible conflicts of interest.

The partnership between YMC and the ACHA stems from one of those collaborations.

Earlier in 2021 the ACHA received more than $2. 4 million in grants in the CDC to fund their Advanced schooling Covid-19 Community of Practice  (HECCOP)   and the Campus Covid-19 Vaccine Initiative  (CoVAC) , respectively intended to promote COVID mitigation through behavioral change and vaccine confidence.  

According to the CoVAC website, the two projects had been supposed to conclude in the earlier fall of 2021, but have since been  merged and extended   through September associated with 2022.

It had been through CoVAC that the ACHA attained the services of YMC to develop what became known as  VaxForward .

According to  the YMC website , “ YMC worked with the ACHA, in partnership with the Oughout. S. Centers for Illness Control and Prevention (CDC), to launch the VaxForward campaign, which leveraged relatable and credible content and peer-to-peer education to engage student bodies with low COVID-19 vaccine confidence. ”

A detailed  branding guide   for VaxForward provides a higher sense of the campaign’s tone and strategy. The guideline describes VaxForward as “ a hopeful call to action with regard to students, faculty, and personnel to get vaccinated so they can participate the campus communities plus activities they love. ”  

It offers highly specific suggestions for controlling the campaign’s “ youthful” and “ conversational” tone of voice, properly using “ vax forward” as a verb, and upholding the brand’s feeling of style. Within, there are additional bits of advice for framing COVID vaccination as an act of school spirit, the right thing to do for your community, and a progressive advance into a better tomorrow.  

To ensure VaxForward reached its target audience, the ACHA went on to depend on many of YMC’s tried and true tactics that had worked in order to “ appeal to and motivate youth audiences” on behalf of relevant and exciting brands during the past – notably the use of social media marketing, influencers, and peer ambassadors.

Universities that wanted to be part of the effort could apply for  $2, two hundred   or  $3, 000   mini-grants, respectively through HECCOP or CoVAC, and advertise COVID mitigation and shot confidence themselves with the help of ACHA guides on topics like  branding ,   utilizing TikTok   and  creating peer ambassador programs . Alternatively, they could also affect have YMC hire plus manage paid CoVAC ambassadors on their behalf.

Given that HECCOP and CoVAC started, 20 mini-grants were awarded through  HECCOP , 50 were awarded via CoVAC’s  “ Yr 1” program , plus 58 through CoVAC’s  “ Year 2” system .  

For some insight into how these mini-grants were used, the particular University of Tennessee, Chattanooga, listed as having received $3, 000 mini-grants through both CoVAC’s “ Year 1” and “ Season 2” programs, assembling the team of COVID peer educators.   Their website   hosts photos of the group dressed in COVID outfits at the UTC library’s Halloween open house and pages for the group’s “ Vaccine Confidence Promotion Competition ” and a  MythBusters -inspired vaccine misinformation  movie series .  

The “ Vaccine Confidence Promotion Competition” yielded several pieces of vaccine confidence-inspired art, such as a cartoon picture of a bird with a band-aid on its wing and also a one-page comic telling the storyplot of an interracial lesbian couple that could not enjoy an unmasked, non-socially distanced day until they were both “ Fully vaxxed. ”

The vaccine false information video series contains a number of bite-sized videos of 2 masked biology majors discussing topics like vaccine security, natural immunity, and the reason why it is important to get vaccinated regarding COVID even if the vaccines usually do not prevent infection. In each video the hosts reassure that it’s normal to have concerns about new medical technology and that navigating relevant details can be difficult before addressing the subject at hand, dismissing the concerns of the vaccine-hesitant with casual appeals to the FDA, CDC, or mostly non-specific research data.

Other grant recipients took a simpler approach. Alexis Washington, the particular Assistant Director of Wellness Promotion at the University associated with Central Oklahoma, which obtained a “ Year 1” CoVAC mini-grant, stated in a phone interview that the girl office under her predecessor hired a single health schooling ambassador. “[The ambassador] would go out every other Wednesday… dispelling myths, giving learners facts about COVID-19 and resources – where to get tested, where you can get the vaccine, things like that, ” Washington said.

The exact number of CoVAC ambassadors recruited by YMC and the schools at which they worked do not appear to be explicitly disclosed by the ACHA or by YMC. When contacted regarding this matter, along with other elements related to VaxForward, Bill Varquez, YMC managing director, stated his company is not permitted to disclose this information.  

Yet, an online search for the hashtags “ #VaxForward” and “ #ACHAPartner” reveal numerous TikTok plus Instagram posts from a number of YMC ambassadors selling COVID vaccination as key in order to participation in college lifetime. Numerous examples have also been collected on the  CoVAC website .

“ I am so thankful for my COVID-19 vaccine because it indicates I can enjoy my favorite time of year (pumpkin chai included) without having to worry! #ACHAPartner #VaxForward, ” wrote one student with pastel pink hair along with a cloth, tie-dyed, masked.

According to the job description for student applicants sent to universities selected to receive the CoVAC ambassador, the ACHA and YMC were looking for “ enthusiastic” students who were “ Highly social and well-connected within on-campus organizations plus clubs” to “ Create informative lifestyle-related social media posts” and “ Be a continuous advocate for the CoVAC Initiative. ”  

“ So grateful for your COVID-19 vaccine that allowed me to enjoy this summer towards the fullest. Do you [ sic ] part and get vaxxed today so we can many #VaxForward, ” rejoiced a bikini-clad young woman, relishing a summer afternoon with two of her close friends.

In addition to posting on social media YMC’s CoVAC ambassadors also partook within on-campus events.

At the University of Central Florida, Mary Schmidt-Owens, the Associate Director of Healthcare Conformity, wrote in an email that will UCF’s CoVAC ambassadors “ hosted a ‘ free of charge coffee from Starbucks in the event that vaccinated’ event… and hosted a ‘ VaxFor Wall’ ” where “[UCF] community members had been invited to write on this ‘ wall’ the reason why s/he obtained vaccinated. ”

At the University of Utah Jenna Templeton, the Associate Director of Health Education at the Center for Student Wellness stated in a cell phone interview that, at the girl school, YMC CoVAC ambassadors also worked events close to campus to “ increase vaccine visibility and overcome vaccine misinformation. ”

Whether any of these government funded efforts were profitable though remains unclear.   HECCOP   and  CoVAC   “ Lessons Learned” documents generally describe the final results of the mini-grant programs within a favorable manner, although the related measures were vague plus self-reported by grant recipients. The  YMC web site   boasts associated with 678k+ organic social media opinions, 1, 200+ attendees in campus events, and 70% of peer ambassadors being taught they influenced vaccinations, but whether this led to behavior change or increased shot uptake is unclear.

Additionally , some expert ambassadors have admitted their own groups were not always well-received.  

Thowaiba Ali, a peer ambassador with the UTC peer schooling program stated in a 03 phone interview, “[Among students at UTC], the general attitude and the culture right now [is] no one wants to talk to you about COVID… They do not wish to talk to you about wondering them to wear a cover up or asking them to get vaccinated. ”  

Madeline Ledbetter, UTC’s peer ambassador coordinator, within an email, described her team as a “ quasi failed attempt at establishing the Peer Ambassador program, ” but did not respond to the followup request to elaborate.

Washington from UCO said she was unaware of any evaluation associated with her school’s mini-grant-funded plan, or if any metrics on its success were even kept.

Therefore, it is entirely possible that the CDC spent $2. 4 mil on a failed attempt to encourage college kids that COVID vaccines are cool, just like having the right handbag or utilizing the right cosmetics brand.  

Yet, whatever the success of these programs, larger practical and ethical questions remain.  

Why did the CDC believe it was worthwhile to spend $2. 4 million looking to convince college students to get vaccinated for a disease that poses small serious threat to most  young ,   healthy   individuals? Furthermore, why did the CDC and ACHA feel it was appropriate to peddle a  possibly risky drug   to young people as if this were a lifestyle brand?  

And, given the amount of isolation plus loneliness imposed upon young adults over the past two years – and the corollary  mental health crisis   among that demographic – the reason why would they subject these to a marketing campaign where, beneath the practiced smiles and strained facades, is an implied information of social exclusion marketed with more than a hint associated with peer pressure?

“ I guess it’s true that time flies when you’re having a good time. I’m so thankful to get received my Covid-19 vaccine last spring so I might have in person semesters… ” had written one young influencer.

“ Even though we have been kissing the semester farewell, we shouldn’t forget about the responsibility to make sure everyone is doing their part to #vaxforward… ” reminded another whilst eating pizza and making kissy-faces with friends.

Multiple attempts had been made to reach the ACHA for comment, but they failed to respond to these requests. Even though several pages related to CoVAC contain the  please note , “ Program articles is solely the responsibility of ACHA and does not necessarily reveal the official views of CDC, ” a page detailing the history of the program also  states   how the CDC extended the program beyond the initial end-date, suggesting their own approval.

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