Young Americans are trying to return to the normalcy they’ve long yearned for since the pandemic started. And, well? Things are shaping up to be a little brutal out here.
Americans between 12 and 29 are contracting COVID-19 at the highest rates while being the least protected — only 38 percent are vaccinated against the virus as of May 22, according to the Centers for Disease and Control and Prevention. The vaccine is now available in every state for people 12 and older, but Gen Z and younger millennials remain hesitant for various reasons, from not feeling any urgency to believing disinformation — messages that are sometimes spread by elected officials. The Tennessee Department of Health stopped all vaccination outreach efforts toward minors after pressure from Republican lawmakers in the state, according to records obtained by the Tennessean.
So the White House has enlisted someone they hope can convince younger folks that the vaccine will keep them happy and healthy: Olivia Rodrigo.
The announcement came — fittingly — via Instagram. President Joe Biden posted a picture of himself as a teen with the caption, “I know this young person would’ve gotten vaccinated, but we’ve got to get other young people protected as well. Who’s willing to help?” Rodrigo, who came of voting age in February, commented on the post, “i’m in! see you tomorrow at the white house!”
The comment has since received more than 72,000 likes and over 1200 replies, including one from the POTUS account saying, “You bet!” The pop star, who spoke at Wednesday afternoon’s White House press briefing, is meeting with the president and top White House medical adviser Dr. Anthony Fauci to make videos about the importance of young people getting vaccinated.
Biden hoped to have at least 70 percent of adults at least partially vaccinated by July 4, but did not reach that goal. The vaccine is the country’s best shot at containing the coronavirus and preventing more deaths and debilitating symptoms that can last for months. While many other countries are struggling with vaccine supply, the United States has a surplus. Yet the vaccination rate in the U.S. has slowed since peaking in April.
That stubborn vaccination lag has moved the Biden administration to turn to a trusty strategy — seek credibility and star power from influencers to help end the pandemic.
The influencer complex
At its best, social media is necessary to share important information with millions of people in seconds. At its worst, disinformation and misinformation can be shared even faster.
This is where assistance from influencers comes in. Experts say the more people share their decision to get vaccinated on social media, the more it can help motivate others in their circles to also get theirs. Whether it’s a micro-influencer with a few thousand followers, or someone with millions of followers across multiple platforms (like, for instance, Rodrigo), there is a relationship of trust between the influencer and the influenced.
Brands capitalize on this all the time by paying influencers to market their products. And for a lot of brands, it works. According to MediaKix, one of the first influencer marketing agencies, influencer commerce is now a $5 to $10 billion industry.
Savannah Lee Coco, co-author of a research article that examines the impact influencers have on marketing, said followers often feel like they have a type of personal relationship with influencers. An influencer’s perceived authenticity is important when it comes to selling or promoting a product, she said, but studies show that even if followers don’t find a post to be authentic, they still may be influenced by the product promoted.
The White House is not paying Rodrigo to promote the vaccine, but her platform is extremely valuable. The star has more than 14.4 million followers on Instagram, 1.3 million followers on Twitter and 9.3 million followers on TikTok. Her content is geared toward teens and young adults and her audience consumes just about everything she has to say.
Because of her celebrity status as an actress and singer, Rodrigo differs from influencers who gained their fame by just posting about their lifestyle. But the way Rodrigo interacts with her followers on social media connects with them on a more personal level than other celebrities, which has helped her gain their trust.
“When you think about the vaccine rollout, so much of this is about trust in the efficacy of the vaccine, trust in our government,” said Lee Coco, who is the director of marketing and communications at the University of Michigan School of Music, Theatre and Dance. She said someone like Rodrigo already has the trust of a large audience, and her promoting her trust in the vaccine could help others do the same.
Mega-celebrities have used their platforms to promote vaccines in the past — Elvis Presley famously got his polio shot on “The Ed Sullivan Show.” Earlier this year, Dolly Parton received her COVID-19 vaccine in front of cameras and tweaked her hit “Jolene” into a pro-vaccine song.
Public health traditionally is not a partisan issue, but COVID-19 became one during the Trump administration. Former President Donald Trump used social media in a totally different way than both his predecessor and his successor. Trump often shared off-the-cuff reactions and personal attacks, and through his platform spread disinformation about topics like COVID-19 and the 2020 election.
While the Biden administration is more restrained, Anne Whitesell, an associate professor at Miami University who studies social media’s influence on politics, said Biden’s more personal posts play to his strengths. When he shares something close to the heart, like the death of his dog Champ, it blends in with other people’s posts of family, friends and trusted influencers, helping him build trust and authenticity, she said.
Rodrigo’s involvement with vaccine rollout and the Biden administration could be interpreted as a political stance, making her a target for detractors, but “there’s also the opportunity that if you pick the right person who does kind of reach across party lines, that they can get a message out that was traditionally partisan,” Whitesell said. “I think the idea behind Olivia Rodrigo is that we’re going to try to appeal to a large base [of] younger people beyond party politics.”
So, why Olivia Rodrigo?
Rodrigo became extremely famous extremely fast. Before entering the music industry, she was best known for her starring role in the Disney+ show “High School Musical: The Musical: The Series.” Disney is known for its actor-to-singer pipeline, signing much of its talent to an in-house record label after they become breakout television stars. But Rodrigo signed with Geffen Records, a label that didn’t have a connection to Disney at all.
Her debut single, “driver’s license,” was released in January. The song, an emotional tale of teenage heartbreak, was streamed over 80 million times in seven days, broke the Spotify record for most streams in a day twice, and topped charts worldwide — including holding the top spot in the Billboard Hot 100 for eight weeks.
Rodrigo’s next two singles, “deja vu” and “good 4 u,” saw similar success in the first 10 spots on the Hot 100. Her critically acclaimed debut album, “sour,” was released in May.
Having proved she isn’t a one-hit wonder, the star seems to have staying power.“People enjoy being along for the ride to see someone’s growth,” said Lee Coco, “I could see how this would be a really great time to work with [Rodrigo] to do something like promote vaccine rollout or any sort of social media influence or marketing.”
Rodrigo’s lyrics of teenage angst — a bedrock of popular music, for any generation — captivate young millennials just as much as Gen Z. Young millennials found nostalgia in the album as they connected with the tumult they felt when they listened to Paramore and Taylor Swift in the early 2000s. Millennials “simping” for Rodrigo is now its own genre of memes on Twitter and TikTok.
Both Lee Coco and Whitesell said the announcement of Rodrigo’s visit to the White House coming via an Instagram comment makes the visit feel more casual and authentic — even if it turns out it was staged. Instead of glossy promotional content to advertise the visit, the comments promoted it organically and drew in Rodrigo’s fans. Intentional or not, it was a smart move, they said.
This could offer a blueprint for involving social media influencers in public campaigns, but Lee Coco said there are ethical lines that both influencers and politicians need to consider. Science has proved the COVID-19 vaccine offers universal benefit to the public wellbeing, but other issues are more complex.
“When is it appropriate to wield this power to these communities who really trust the influencers they are following?” she said.