'Red flag': New info on HHS' coronavirus ad campaign triggers renewed outcry

01 October 2020

Beth Snyder Bulik / FiercePharma

A massive ad campaign to quell Americans’ coronavirus fears before the November election faced new criticism this weekend as new details leaked.

Politico reported new info about the $300 million effort Friday, including B-list celebrity involvement, funding shenanigans, and more questions about political motives. According to the Politico exclusive report, the campaign raises “every red flag I could dream of.” 

That's how Josh Peck, a former HHS official who oversaw the Obama administration's advertising campaign for HealthCare.gov described it.

His comments were echoed by public health officials, media and many others who took to social media over the weekend to criticize the effort, originally masterminded by Trump associate and now-ex HHS comms chief Michael Caputo.

On Twitter, public health officials such as Johns Hopkins’ Tom Inglesby wrote the campaign should have been led by the CDC and the Ad Council instead of a "campaign official with no background in health or science, and his friends.” He warned that anything not based on science and public health “will harm people.”

The ads will reportedly feature a handful of B-list celebrities along with administration officials, including actor Dennis Quaid, singer Cece Winans and U.S. Surgeon General Jerome Adams. The campaign goal, stated by HHS in bid documents, is to help the administration “defeat despair, inspire hope and achieve national recovery” regarding COVID-19.

Winans confirmed her involvement in the project via Twitter. She defended herself against the swell of social media criticism in a video post. The work is not political, she said, but simply a conversation between her and Adams that stresses the importance of wearing masks and other information on “how to get on the other side of this pandemic.”

The FDA contributed $15 million of its budget to pre-campaign work, Politico revealed. The main budget of $300 million was requisitioned from CDC funding allocated by Congress for other purposes. Politico reported that the money was requested with few details about how it would be spent and that HHS has largely spurned CDC involvement in the campaign itself.

The ad campaign was initially led by Caputo, a former Trump campaign staffer and HHS assistant secretary for public affairs who is now on a medical leave. Caputo left shortly after a Facebook Live video in which he accused scientists at the CDC of “sedition." He also told viewers he was personally ordered by Trump to undertake the HHS ad campaign.

HHS defended the upcoming campaign to Politico in a statement from Mark Weber, deputy assistant secretary for public affairs for human services who is now overseeing the effort. He said there is no political spin to the work, which was “designed by HHS to help Americans make informed decisions about the prevention and treatment of Covid-19 and flu.”

Politico previously reported that Democrats in the House of Representatives launched an investigation into the ad campaign contracts. They also asked HHS Secretary Alex Azar to halt the work while the probe is underway.

The contract was awarded to DC consultants Fors Marsh Group in early September; the firm said two of its large ad agency and media partners, VMLY&R and iHeartMedia, will work on the campaign’s creative execution and media outreach.

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