Ad Council Launches 'Unprecedented' Latino Outreach Effort to Combat Vaccine Hesitancy

In the dark days early in the pandemic, Father Manuel Dorantes was part of a group of young priests asked to be an anointer—to give last rites to people dying alone in Chicago hospitals.

Known as Father Manny to his congregants, he estimates he did so for 40 to 50 people— one last friendly face before they died. One of those deaths has stayed with him—a 52-year-old Latino father, the family's provider, left alone with the priest by an overwhelmed nurse last May.

Father Manny used his phone to FaceTime the man's wife and children so they could pray together and say goodbye. But before getting off the phone, one of his kids asked for the phone to be put by their father's ear.

"All of a sudden I hear the kids and wife singing 'Estas son las mañanitas,' the Happy Birthday song," Dorantes said, before pausing, overcome with emotion. "Because it was his birthday that day. He died on his birthday."

That story, and dozens more like it, are why Father Manny wanted his congregants to stay after his Spanish-language mass on Sunday to ask an infectious disease expert questions about the coronavirus vaccine, all part of an "unprecedented" new campaign from the Ad Council to combat vaccine hesitancy among Latinos.

The nonprofit ad council, borne out of a wartime effort in the wake of the attack on Pearl Harbor, has produced campaigns that are stitched into the fabric of American history, from Smokey the Bear and the "Just Say No" to drugs of the Reagan-era, to the PSA of a teary-eyed Native American that ushered in the first Earth Day, as well as the first campaign to fight AIDS.

Now, after running morale-boosting post-9/11 PSAs and Michelle Obama's "Let's Move" campaign in recent years, the group comprised of ad experts from the top companies and agencies in the country has turned to the daunting task of addressing vaccine hesitancy, particularly among communities of color.

The Latino effort includes ads on Spanish-language giants Telemundo and Univision, as well as partnerships with companies like Facebook, Twitter, Pandora, and iHeartMedia, who are donating bilingual ads and creative assistance to reach a demographic that is typically younger and lives online.

"What the ad council is doing in terms of its focus and commitment to get the message out on the importance of vaccine awareness and education to the Latino community is an unprecedented effort on their behalf," said veteran Democratic strategist Maria Cardona.

She is working to corral national Hispanic organizations to reinforce the group's campaign over the airwaves with on-the-ground grassroots support. Those groups include the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC), Mi Familia Vota, Voto Latino, the Hispanic Federation, the Hispanic Heritage Foundation and others.

"This campaign for the Ad Council is the biggest campaign we've ever done, especially when you think about the importance and impact of the pandemic," Sherry Thompson, who is leading the coalitions work for the group, told Newsweek. One thing that is being stressed, Thompson said, is "leading with empathy" in messaging, rather than being preachy.

This ad campaign is looking to start a dialogue with its target audience.

"It's OK to have questions," she said, "and we're working with medical experts to answer them."

The muscular initiative comes during a time where there appears to be a market for targeted, effective persuasion efforts aimed at Latinos. A survey by the Kaiser Family Foundation published May 13 found that one-third of unvaccinated Latinos say they want to get the shot as soon as possible, about twice the share as compared to unvaccinated Black and white Americans.

But the presence of Cardona and former Obama official Jorge Neri, who is bolstering the ground game, doesn't mean this is a partisan effort, the group said. In fact, the Ad Council's data quickly revealed that if it was to be successful, the initiative had to focus on education and avoid the tinderbox of politics in a deeply polarized nation, where it could be seen as yet another reason to distrust the vaccine.

For example, when organizers wanted to use Representative Raul Ruiz, the chair of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus and Democratic lawmaker for an event because of his background as a physician, they had to make it clear he was there "as a legislator and as a doctor."

"We're talking to everybody, we're not doing it by party affiliation," Neri told Newsweek. But he added that the campaign will utilize organizing tactics learned in the political sphere.

"As somebody that has been partisan in the past, the focus here is on the people," he said. "One thing we saw from this pandemic is it really did bring us together, and if someone doesn't believe in the vaccine, we're still going to talk them."

The Ad Council representatives said they understand that the messenger is as important as the message. That's why they're providing data-driven toolkits and resources to organizations on the ground who can use them to promote their events in local markets.

Tuesday will mark the first of three tele-townhalls with opening remarks by respected Telemundo anchor José Díaz-Balart and co-hosted by Cardona and Mi Familia Vota executive director Hector Sanchez Barba. Latina civil rights icon Dolores Huerta and celebrated actress Rita Moreno are expected to be special guests.

The importance of respected community validators explains the composition of the group's National Faith Steering Committee, comprised of 21 national faith leaders, including high-profile Black pastor Bishop T.D. Jakes and Latinos like Reverend Dr. Gabriel Salguero, the founder of the National Latino Evangelical Coalition.

The Ad Council is hoping a data-driven approach that seeks to learn from case studies can help turn vaccine hesitancy into vaccine confidence. For example, there was a unique incident in Los Angeles where Latinos seeking the vaccine were asked for "documentos de residencia," which was the wrong way of asking for proof of address.

It wasn't intentional, but incidents like that could weaken people's interest in getting the vaccine.

"It sounded like proof of legal status to the average Latino," Father Manny Dorantes said, "not necessarily a water or electric bill."

He told Newsweek he will hold three events at his church for parishioners. Dorantes said that he is driven by the pain and suffering he witnessed going to the cemetery to bury people who died of COVID-19, and holding livestream masses to provide a sense of closure to Latino families.

Having earned an MBA from the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University, he uses data to drive his point home to churchgoers.

For example, Dorantes learned from Ad Council research that Latina immigrant moms are one of the largest groups that is hesitant about getting the vaccine. He said that breaks his heart, because these women are vulnerable due to their propensity to work in service and hospitality jobs.

"Those are the moms from my church that are not getting vaccinated and are most vulnerable should anything happen," he said, "and I feel a moral responsibility as a priest to say lets open our eyes here and not forget what happened during the height of the pandemic."

The last year was one of painful memories for a hard-hit community but also one of overcoming hardship, Father Manny said.

When stay-at-home orders went into effect, the church created a pop-up pantry, eventually providing 30-pound boxes of food to 2,000 families. He said he's leaning on that experience in his message to congregants, essentially echoing the Ad Council's campaign message that "It's Up To You" to get vaccinated and move forward with life.

"A year ago we worked to get you food on the table," Father Manny said of his message, "now we have the vaccine available. Please consider it."

latino vaccine
Medical staff organize paperwork before people show up for their appointments to be vaccinated at La Colaborativa in Chelsea, Massachusetts on February 16, 2021. Chelsea, with a population of close to 40,000 people, is one of the hardes- hit cities in the United States by Covid-19, with close to 8,000 infected people and over 200 deaths from the virus. The community is made up of close to 70 percent Latino or Hispanic people and also retains a large undocumented population. Joseph Prezioso / AFP/Getty Images