Local and state governments made valiant efforts in 2020 to communicate the need for meaningful, urgent behavioral changes to slow the spread of COVID-19. No lone TV commercial could withstand the rapid spread of the Coronavirus and turn the tide of its spread from any city or state, but many PSAs successfully broke through the clutter of mainstream advertising.

As the chief brand strategist at Kivvit, I have worked over the past seven months to help our clients effectively communicate during the Coronavirus pandemic. We are proud to have been selected last year by the State of New Jersey Department of Health to develop and execute their advertising efforts around the importance of COVID-19 testing and contact tracing.

As a part of our internal research process, we set out to see what was out there already in order to understand what we needed to inspire and cut through the noise. In addition to reviewing dozens of videos firsthand, we also deployed Kivvit’s Insights team to identify which PSAs sparked the most engagement on social media.

The following five ads stood out as the most creative, innovative and resonant of all we found in the public domain. Of course we couldn’t include our own work for NJDOH, which can be found here.

5.Woods” and “Auld Lang Syne Coronavirus” – Michigan Department of Health and Human Services

While most PSA campaigns have avoided expansive (read: expensive) live-action productions, this 96-second spot filmed outdoors includes 10 performers! Michigan’s Department of Health and Human Services created an ad with engaging characters in an intriguing environment—the enchanted woods—to promote their MI CovidAlert app and highlight how we can "get out of the woods" by combating COVID-19.

After you’ve watched “Woods,” give their brilliant holiday video “Auld Lang Syne Coronavirus” a watch. According to our data, Auld Lang Syne was Michigan DHHS’ most viral Facebook video in 2020. It has been watched on Facebook more than 940,000 times, receiving 60x more social engagement (likes, comments, and shares) than the Department’s average Facebook post.

4. "#MaskUp”Cook County, Illinois

A short, snackable ad that is right-to-the-point and delivered repeatedly to an audience is often the most effective form of advertising. This nine-second Snapchat ad from Illinois’ Cook County speaks directly to Millennials and Gen Z with a series of images of young adults wearing masks followed by simple copy: wear it, don’t spread it #maskup. Simple, direct, and concise.

3. “Eli, San Marcos COVID-19 Survivor”San Diego County, CA

While many health departments used local doctors as messengers in their ad campaigns, San Diego County’s campaign used young Covid-19 survivors, which we found to be extremely compelling. A series of ads from San Diego County gave voice to several younger, healthier-looking victims who shared their personal stories and implored on their community members to adhere to social distancing and mask wearing to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

2. “The Rona Unexpected Guest” – California Department of Health

The California Department of Health personified the Coronavirus as two characters – ‘The Rona’ and ‘El Covid’ – voiced by a sinister, horror-movie-villain-sounding voiceover in a public awareness campaign directed at Latinos and African Americans, communities hit disproportionately harder by COVID-19. From the series, ‘The Rona Unexpected Guest’ recreates that cringeworthy moment of coming into contact with someone you know when they are not wearing a mask or not wearing it properly. All of the videos in this bilingual campaign are worth a watch. Even though the series was posted to YouTube in late November, it has already received more than 3 million views collectively, making these videos among the California Department of Public Health’s most watched of 2020. Certainly this campaign required a higher production budget than other jurisdictions had available, but what else would you expect from Hollywood?

1. “Flatten the Curve”Ohio Department of Health

The Ohio Department of Health took a chance on an imaginative and different idea and it paid off with over 122 million views on Facebook. This advertisement to encourage social distancing is hands-down the most creative and bold COVID-19 related ad out there. According to a Kivvit analysis of 10,000+ Facebook videos from across more than 1,300 US government agencies, this PSA was by far the most viral, receiving more than 1.8 million shares, comments and likes on Facebook – 6x more than any other video (on any topic).


Stephan Miller is chief brand strategist at Kivvit, a nationally recognized, data-driven Strategic Communications and Public Affairs firm with offices in New York, Chicago, New Jersey, Boston, Miami, and Washington, DC.