With the first vaccines administered in the U.S., the end of the COVID-19 pandemic is now in sight. The challenge over the next year will be achieving widespread vaccination across the entire population, especially among people of color who are suffering and dying from the virus at higher rates. Many experts are worried that vaccination rates for minority groups could lag behind the rest of the population. Data from the first weeks of the vaccine rollout indicate that in some states, white Americans are being vaccinated at two to three times the rate of Black Americans.
Public health officials are exploring a variety of ways to increase vaccination rates. My research suggests that Facebook ads targeting zip codes with large minority populations, high COVID-19 rates, and low vaccine uptake could be highly effective at encouraging underrepresented groups to get vaccinated. While targeted online advertising is widely used by businesses, the public health community has been slow to adopt it. I believe that online ads, provided for free by Facebook as a public good, can be an essential tool for achieving the widespread vaccination necessary to bring the pandemic to a close.
No vaccination campaign will be close to complete without high levels of participation from racial and ethnic minorities, who make up 40% of the U.S. population and have been disproportionately harmed by COVID-19. Yet the U.S. has a long history of mistreating and neglecting minority groups in vaccine trials and other medical research, leaving people of color understandably distrustful of our healthcare system and more hesitant to access care, including essential vaccinations. In 2019, uptake of the flu vaccine was 12% lower among Black people and 15% lower among Latino people than white people, despite the fact that these groups are hospitalized for the flu at higher rates.
Recent surveys have found widespread skepticism about the COVID-19 vaccine, particularly among Black Americans. Moderna’s vaccine trial underrepresented Black Americans, and nearly half of Black and more than one-third of Hispanic adults believe that the COVID-19 vaccines currently being distributed weren’t developed with their needs in mind. As of December, one in three Black adults say they will “definitely not” or “probably” not get the vaccine, even if it is freely available, compared to one in four White and Hispanic adults. White adults are more likely to say they will get the vaccine as soon as possible. Most Black and Hispanic adults, for whom the public health system has long been fraught, want to wait and see how the vaccine is working for other people.
The country needs a robust campaign to counter vaccine skepticism and turn out individuals, especially people of color, to vaccine clinics. My research on the use of targeted advertising in public health campaigns suggests that leveraging social media could be one of the fastest and most effective ways to increase vaccine uptake in specific communities, especially during lockdowns when traditional outreach channels like in-person events, billboards, and flyers are less relevant.
While Facebook and its subsidiary Instagram don’t allow targeting ads by race, my research found that targeting by zip code can serve largely the same purpose. In a recent study, I recruited participants for a quit-smoking support group using Facebook ads that targeted zip codes with predominantly Black populations. Compared to a similar campaign that showed ads to smokers across the country, the zip-code-targeted campaign more than doubled the number of Black applicants for the group. When we ran a similar campaign targeting zip codes with large Latino populations, the number of Latino applicants more than tripled.
While public health experts recognize the value of social media for distributing messages—the CDC even has a social media toolkit for sharing information about COVID-19—simply broadcasting messages on the social channels of government agencies is insufficient. Zip-code-targeted ads ensure that underrepresented populations are exposed to vaccine information in their personalized feeds that they might not encounter otherwise. Ads are delivered repeatedly, increasing the likelihood that vaccine-hesitant viewers see and engage with them. Campaigns can be re-targeted over time to populations and geographic areas where vaccination rates remain low.
Facebook can help end this pandemic by offering free targeted ad campaigns on its platform and Instagram that encourage vulnerable populations to get vaccinated, in partnership with public health authorities who know which groups and zip codes are highest priority. Ads could offer a clear call to action—”Schedule a vaccine appointment now!”—along with information about local vaccination sites and a reminder that the vaccine is free and safe. They could be tailored to different local and cultural contexts, including images of well-known community members being vaccinated. Going forward, Facebook might even consider creating a dedicated advertising portal for data-driven public health campaigns, partnering with health authorities to encourage underrepresented or high-risk groups to access care.
Facebook, which is currently facing a massive public trust gap and an antitrust suit from the U.S. government, frequently counters public criticism by arguing that its social network benefits society. In April, CEO Mark Zuckerberg wrote an op-ed about how the company was using its platform and data to aid the fight against COVID-19. Now they have an opportunity to create social good by helping public health officials ensure high-priority groups, especially people of color, get the vaccines they need to be safe. By working together on such a campaign, Facebook and public health authorities can bring the pandemic to a faster, more equitable close and ensure that minority communities don’t continue to bear the brunt of the pandemic.
Dr. Connie Pechmann is a Professor of Marketing at the University of California-Irvine Paul Merage School of Business. She studies the impact of advertising and social media on consumers and the effectiveness of public health ad campaigns.