The DC-based marketing firm, Youth Marketing Connections (YMC), builds “brand experiences for the next generation.” “Youth is All We Do,” states their website. “We’re Well Connected,” it assures potential clients. “We’re Gen-Z + Millennial experts—amplifying and propelling today’s most relevant & exciting brands.”
YMC’s website, through its strategic use of white space and color palette of mostly light grays and soft blues, provides a glimpse of what the company has to offer. Youthful images of teens and young adults – attractive, fun-loving, and diverse – decorate every page as they peddle makeup, energy drinks, and manufactured authenticity.
“We ensure brands appeal to and excite youth audiences,” says one page of their site.
YMC’s peer ambassadors are “well connected, trusted, & deeply engaged in their communities,” says another.
Under Armour, Sephora, MTV, Kate Spade, Bud Light, and AXE are just a few of the relevant and exciting brands YMC claims to have amplified and propelled over the past 20-plus years with the help of their legion of student and young adult influencers and relationships with more than 1,000 colleges and universities. It makes sense why brands like Maybelline, Corona, and Rockstar would acquire their services. It should come as no surprise to see Spotify, Adidas, and Hims listed among those with which they’ve done 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 voice for student health and wellness,” but has a history of taking money from pharmaceutical companies and the CDC for collaborative projects, which critics claim lead to potential conflicts of interest.
The partnership between YMC and the ACHA stems from one of those collaborations.
Early in 2021 the ACHA received more than $2.4 million in grants from the CDC to fund their Higher Education 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 were supposed to conclude in the early fall of 2021, but have since been merged and extended through September of 2022.
It was 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 U.S. Centers for Disease 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 greater sense of the campaign’s tone and strategy. The guide describes VaxForward as “a hopeful call to action for students, faculty, and staff to get vaccinated so they can be part of the campus communities and activities they love.”
It provides highly specific suggestions for managing the campaign’s “youthful” and “conversational” voice, properly using “vax forward” as a verb, and upholding the brand’s sense 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 one’s community, and a progressive step forward into a better tomorrow.
To ensure VaxForward reached its target audience, the ACHA went on to rely on many of YMC’s tried and true tactics that had worked to “appeal to and excite youth audiences” on behalf of relevant and exciting brands in the past – notably the use of social media, influencers, and peer ambassadors.
Universities that wished to be part of the effort could apply for $2,200 or $3,000 mini-grants, respectively through HECCOP or CoVAC, and promote COVID mitigation and vaccine confidence themselves with the help of ACHA guides on topics like branding, utilizing TikTok and developing peer ambassador programs. Alternatively, they could also apply to have YMC hire and manage paid CoVAC ambassadors on their behalf.
Since HECCOP and CoVAC began, 20 mini-grants were awarded through HECCOP, 50 were awarded through CoVAC’s “Year 1” program, and 58 through CoVAC’s “Year 2” program.
For some insight into how these mini-grants were used, the University of Tennessee, Chattanooga, listed as having received $3,000 mini-grants through both CoVAC’s “Year 1” and “Year 2” programs, assembling a team of COVID peer educators. Their website hosts pictures of the group dressed in COVID costumes at the UTC library’s Halloween open house and pages for the group’s “Vaccine Confidence Promotion Competition” and a MythBusters-inspired vaccine misinformation video series.
The “Vaccine Confidence Promotion Competition” yielded several pieces of vaccine confidence-inspired art, such as a cartoon image of a bird with a band-aid on its wing and a one-page comic telling the story of an interracial lesbian couple that could not enjoy an unmasked, non-socially distanced date until they were both “Fully vaxxed.”
The vaccine misinformation video series contains several bite-sized videos of two masked biology majors discussing topics like vaccine safety, natural immunity, and why it is important to get vaccinated for COVID even if the vaccines do not prevent infection. In each video the hosts reassure that it’s normal to have concerns about new medical technologies and that navigating relevant information can be difficult before addressing the topic 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 Assistant Director of Health Promotion at the University of Central Oklahoma, which received a “Year 1” CoVAC mini-grant, stated in a phone interview that her office under her predecessor hired a single health education ambassador. “[The ambassador] would go out every other Wednesday…dispelling myths, giving students facts about COVID-19 and resources – where to get tested, where to 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, as well as other elements related to VaxForward, Ben Varquez, YMC managing director, stated his company is not permitted to disclose this information.
Yet, an internet search for the hashtags “#VaxForward” and “#ACHAPartner” reveal numerous TikTok and Instagram posts from several YMC ambassadors selling COVID vaccination as key to participation in college life. Numerous examples have also been collected on the CoVAC website.
“I am so thankful for my COVID-19 vaccine because it means I can enjoy my favorite season (pumpkin chai included) without having to worry! #ACHAPartner #VaxForward,” wrote one student with pastel pink hair and a cloth, tie-dyed, masked.
According to the job description for student applicants sent to universities selected to receive a CoVAC ambassador, the ACHA and YMC were looking for “enthusiastic” students who were “Highly social and well-connected within on-campus organizations and clubs” to “Create informative lifestyle-related social media posts” and “Be an ongoing advocate for the CoVAC Initiative.”
“So grateful for the COVID-19 vaccine that allowed me to enjoy this summer to the fullest. Do you [sic] part and get vaxxed today so we can all #VaxForward,” rejoiced a bikini-clad young woman, relishing a summer afternoon with two of her friends.
In addition to posting on social media YMC’s CoVAC ambassadors also partook in on-campus events.
At the University of Central Florida, Mary Schmidt-Owens, the Associate Director of Healthcare Compliance, wrote in an email that UCF’s CoVAC ambassadors “hosted a ‘free coffee from Starbucks if vaccinated’ event…and hosted a ‘VaxFor Wall’ ” where “[UCF] community members were invited to write on this ‘wall’ the reason why s/he got vaccinated.”
At the University of Utah Jenna Templeton, the Assistant Director of Health Education at the Center for Student Wellness stated in a phone interview that, at her school, YMC CoVAC ambassadors also worked events around campus to “increase vaccine visibility and combat vaccine misinformation.”
Whether any of these federally funded efforts were successful though remains unclear. HECCOP and CoVAC “Lessons Learned” documents generally describe the outcomes of the mini-grant programs in a favorable manner, although the relevant measures were vague and self-reported by grant recipients. The YMC website boasts of 678k+ organic social media impressions, 1,200+ attendees at campus events, and 70% of peer ambassadors being told they influenced vaccinations, but whether this led to behavioral change or increased vaccine uptake is unclear.
Additionally, some peer ambassadors have admitted their groups were not always well-received.
Thowaiba Ali, a peer ambassador with the UTC peer education program stated in a March 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 want to talk to you about asking them to wear a mask or asking them to get vaccinated.”
Madeline Ledbetter, UTC’s peer ambassador coordinator, in an email, described her group as a “quasi failed attempt at establishing a Peer Ambassador program,” but did not respond to a followup request to elaborate.
Washington from UCO said she was unaware of any evaluation of her school’s mini-grant-funded program, or if any metrics on its success were even kept.
Hence, it is entirely possible that the CDC spent $2.4 million on a failed attempt to convince college kids that COVID vaccines are cool, like having the right handbag or using the right cosmetics brand.
Yet, regardless of the success of these programs, larger practical and ethical questions remain.
Why did the CDC believe it was worthwhile to spend $2.4 million trying to convince college students to get vaccinated for a disease that poses little serious threat to most young, healthy individuals? Furthermore, 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?
And, given the amount of isolation and loneliness imposed upon young people over the past two years – and the corollary mental health crisis amongst that demographic – why would they subject them to a marketing campaign where, beneath the practiced smiles and filtered facades, is an implied message of social exclusion sold with more than a hint of peer pressure?
“I guess it’s true that time flies when you’re having fun. I’m so thankful to have received my Covid-19 vaccine last spring so I can have in person semesters…” wrote one young influencer.
“Even though we are kissing the semester goodbye, we shouldn’t forget about our responsibility to make sure everyone is doing their part to #vaxforward…” reminded another while eating pizza and making kissy-faces with friends.
Multiple attempts were made to reach the ACHA for comment, but they did not respond to these requests. Although several pages related to CoVAC contain the disclaimer, “Program content is solely the responsibility of ACHA and does not necessarily reflect the official views of CDC,” a page detailing the history of the program also states that the CDC extended the program beyond the initial end-date, suggesting their approval.