City of Toronto acknowledges video about children’s COVID-19 vaccination was ‘poorly executed’

The new children's vaccination campaign has been "paused" by the city after online criticism suggests racial insensitivity. Mark McAllister questions the messages being offered.

By Mark McAllister and Meredith Bond

The City of Toronto said a public service announcement video about children’s COVID-19 vaccine that was taken down after backlash on social media was “poorly executed.”

The video shows a child inside looking out the window at children playing outside. In it, the girl asks their mother if she can go outside and play with her friends. The mother responds, “No, honey, there is still something going around.”

A message is displayed saying, “Kids should be out there. Not in here. COVID-19 vaccines now available for children six months to 12 years.”

City spokesman Brad Ross said this PSA was done by their vaccine engagement team, which aims to reach out to hard-to-reach communities.

“Whether it’s barriers like language or cultural barriers, where we’ve seen low uptake of vaccines, for example, they go out. They speak to individuals. They do door knocking, and they do education and information sessions through face-to-face or door to door to encourage people, who may be vaccine hesitant even, to understand the efficacy and the safety of vaccines.”

The child in the video is a person of colour, and the mother’s voice has an accent. Several complaints online say it singles out a specific ethnic group for being vaccine-hesitant.

David Soberman, a marketing professor with the Rotman School of Management, said this is one of the main problems with the ad.

“It perhaps made it look like low vaccination rates and the restricting of children’s activities due to low vaccination rates [was] associated with a specific ethnic group, and I think that’s probably not the message that the city wanted to transmit,” said Soberman.

“I think the real issue here is that you want your advertising to reflect the diversity, and I don’t think that this ad does that, and that’s why there’s a problem,” he added.

Ross tells CityNews the video was not executed well.

“It left the viewer with the impression that if your child is not vaccinated, they can’t go outside, they can’t see their friends, potentially not go to school. That was not the message that we wanted to deliver.”

It was intended to be one of their “pandemic perspective” videos that share the stories throughout the pandemic of not being able to see family or friends, according to Ross.

“As pediatric vaccines became available, it was decided that they needed to help tell that story to reach these folks, to let them know that vaccines are now available for children. They are safe. They are effective,” explained Ross.

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The video was taken down from the City of Toronto’s Twitter and YouTube pages hours after it was posted.

A statement on Twitter read, “The City removed a tweet and video from earlier today. We always strive to ensure clear understanding, especially about vaccinations, and will work to ensure greater clarity in the future.”

Jessica Mudry, a Professional Communications professor from Toronto Metropolitan University, said she was puzzled by the PSA because she wasn’t quite sure what its central message was supposed to entail.

“I was puzzled because I wasn’t quite sure what it was telling me to do as a parent. It was suggestive, but I’m not sure what it was suggesting. Was it suggesting that vaccines were positive? Was it suggesting that vaccines were negative? That part was a failure on the part of health communication,” said Mudry.

Mudry adds that using negative messaging was also the wrong way to go.

“I think what’s disappointing is that it’s actually using the threat of marginalization as an encouraging step.”

“We had removed it because we recognized it. I hadn’t seen it beforehand, that it was the wrong message entirely, and it left people with the wrong impression of what vaccines are all about,” said Ross.

He explained that the message was intended to be that vaccines are available for children and to consider vaccinating your child.

“We want people to be comfortable vaccinating their children and knowing it’s safe. And if they don’t, the kids don’t have to be isolated inside. Yes, they can go outside. Yes, they can play with their friends. Yes, of course, they can go to school.”

He added that neither he nor Toronto Public Health saw the script or final product before it was released.

“What we’ve done is we regroup this morning and say going forth any future videos that talk about vaccination, for example, any public health measure, TPH needs to be at the table,” Ross admitted.

“They need to be part of the conversation, and we need to sign off from them,” Ross explained.

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