Washington’s Twerking Grandmas and How the Delta Variant Keeps Changing Covid Advertising

Despite the serious nature of the pandemic, states have managed to inject a little bit of good-natured humor in Covid-19 advertising, particularly in the Pacific Northwest. In the early stages of the pandemic, both Oregon and Washington sent out more serious messaging to the public.

For its part, Oregon took a very direct route, with stark ads from Wieden + Kennedy that were incredibly direct and borderline menacing—but that was the whole point. Washington also reflected the urgency of the times with marketing from Seattle agency C+C for the state’s health department that dug into facts and consequences.

The five-video campaign, which won a Northwest Emmy in the PSA category, captured the devastating zeitgeist of the pandemic’s evolution, focusing on whichever topic was most relevant at the time. At first, it was instructional and then became emotional. From there, the agency and Washington’s Department of Health sprung into action on helping residents find vaccines.

When it seemed as though the state (and the nation) was on its way to getting back to some level of normalcy, C+C—which also works on other Washington State programs and nationally for Energy Star—popped the top off, introducing a cast of unexpected characters: older Washingtonians celebrating life coming back … to life.

The piece de resistance of the series is a twerking grandmother, vaxxed up and ready to take the town. There’s also a cougar grandma and grandpas getting on the water and older gents kicking off bonfires.

According to Carey Evenson, C+C svp of creative and content, the issue and topic of Covid-19 became a minefield. Getting information was paramount, yet tapping into emotion remained a crucial piece of the puzzle.

“None of those emotions were happiness or joy,” she said, referring to the first phase of advertising. “But we felt that it was time to bring in a sense of celebration, release and relief to the work. We felt it. The talent felt it. And the client felt it, and that’s why it all came together.”

“The spine of the idea, interpreting the scripts, was joy,” added Lael Rogers, director on the campaign and creative director at All Is Well, the agency’s production partner. “Every decision we made in production needed to ladder up to that and it became a breeze.”

Though elder Washingtonians are the show’s stars, the intention was to target young adults and encourage them to get the approved Covid-19 vaccine. Wyatt Curtiss, C+C creative director, noted that the client brief for the latest campaign was to be “edgy.”

“Figuring out what ‘edgy’ means for a state agency is a process,” he said. “That’s fair because their job is to be inclusive of everyone that calls Washington home. It’s a real balance to figure out how to have fun and push the envelope without doing something disastrously offensive.”

Testing played a key role, especially in the target age range to 18 to 34. Not only did it score well with the intended demographic, but the feedback from older viewers was also largely positive, mainly due to it showing a positive side with the actors, according to Evenson, “having a blast.”

Rogers said that she appreciated the scripts and the concept because it “does away with ageism” and “every actor was excited to have some fun and not be portrayed as the sweet, old grandma or pop pop. They were excited to play who they are in real life.”

Unfortunately, with the rise of the Delta variant and tightening Covid restrictions, the campaign will run through the end of the month, and C+C is currently rethinking how it plans to address young adults in the fall.

Yet, armed with more than a year of experience with the client, Evenson pointed out that being nimble was vital, turning concepts and production in days instead of weeks and months, calling it intense and “working in a way we never had before.”

The nature of this work is reactive,” said Curtiss. “We’re learning as we go as needs pop up or there are [infection] spikes. The messages need to go out now, and it’s an unbelievable pace of work.”
Invoking an oft-said industry truism, Evenson said that it’s the advertising business, and lives aren’t at stake. But, in the era of Covid-19, the inverse is true, with government bodies, agencies and creative professionals providing a vital service for the greater good.

“In this case, lives are at stake,” she said. “We’ve got to get this right and do it quickly. But there is great pride and privilege in doing this work so that we can make the greatest impact possible on the people of Washington.”

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