HHS Report Shows Digital Advertising Data Helped Save More than 50k Lives during COVID-19: Why This Matters Now

May 10, 2024

Big idea: A groundbreaking HHS report showed how advertising data used to target digital vaccination ads to underserved populations helped prevent 52k deaths, 244k hospitalizations, and 2.6 million infections during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Big idea (expanded):  A groundbreaking report released by the US Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) this week showed how advertising data used to target digital vaccination ads to underserved and vulnerable populations helped prevent 52k deaths, 244k hospitalizations, and 2.6 million infections during the COVID-19 pandemic. Public policymakers should consider the grave public health risks from a proposed ban on the use of so-called “sensitive” data for advertising in the discussion draft of a new federal privacy law.

Sometimes, responsible use of data for advertising purposes is about more than customer choices and conveniences; it’s a matter of life and death.

In April 2021, as the COVID-19 virus raged, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) launched one of the largest public health education efforts in American history – the “We Can Do This” campaign – to promote U.S. vaccination efforts, particularly in high-risk communities.

The largest media component of the campaign was $117 million in digital advertising, much of it targeted through digital advertising data “on reaching adults 50+ for Black, Latino, Asian Americans, Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders (AANHPI), American Indian and Alaska Native (AI/AN) and rural audiences.” 

A new study on the effectiveness of that ad campaign has concluded that the campaign "saved more than 50,000 lives and prevented hundreds of thousands of hospitalizations and millions of COVID-19 cases, representing hundreds of billions of dollars in benefits in less than one year." Thanks to deaths and hospitalizations averted, the study found that the total societal benefits from the campaign were $740.2 billion, or $89.54 for every $1 spent on the campaign.

That’s a lot of Americans who are walking, laughing, dancing, and enjoying their lives with their friends and family today thanks to the responsible use of advertising data.

In releasing those results, HHS Secretary Xavier Becerra hailed the data-driven campaign as “an indispensable part of efforts to vaccinate people and protect them from COVID-19.”

In short, if it were not for the commercial availability and responsible use of these very data segments in the advertising marketplace, there would have been no campaign execution, never mind the profoundly efficient and effective campaign results (both for the advertiser and the consumer). 

Also, notably, digital ads delivered during the campaign incorporated the AdChoices icon, the DAA tool that allows ad viewers to access information and make choices about ads with a simple click on the icon itself. 

Ads like this carried the DAA Icon. Captured April 14, 2021.

The analysis of this public campaign should not be seen simply as a footnote on the COVID-19 crisis. Rather, it should be considered a powerful and proven testament for how advertising data can be used responsibly to save lives, the ultimate benefit to society. (By the way, our friends at Federation for Internet Alerts have been proving that the same processes ad tech uses to deliver relevant ads can also deliver relevant public emergency and missing children warnings for years.

Members of Congress and the broader policy-making community ought to take note.  Responsible use of data is alive and well, and it is being used every day to drive positive outcomes for Americans.

Unfortunately, under the discussion draft of the federal American Privacy Rights Act (APRA), the types of online activity and demographic data used in public health campaigns like “We Can Do This” to reach intended audiences would be banned from use in digital advertising, as the legislation is currently written. Such a ban could have cost thousands of lives during the COVID-19 pandemic, and it would put even more American lives at risk in any future pandemic or public health emergency.

Responsible data flows (collection, access and use) need to be facilitated – even encouraged -- by federal (and state) law. As this research dramatically illustrates, there’s more at stake than interest-based ads for consumer products and services. Interest-based ads can -- and do -- save lives. Through DAA and Privacy for America, all parts of the advertising ecosystem have committed to balance privacy and convenience, and we encourage policy makers to include these kinds of reasonable, consumer-serving approaches in any legislation they consider. 

At our upcoming DAA Summit 24 “New ADitude,” we will continue to showcase examples of “data for good” enabling entrepreneurship, competition, and economic and social benefit, alongside our usual information-packed content on public policy, and co-regulatory data governance for advertising across media and ad tech platforms. We invite you to attend.

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