Behind the Work in association withThe Immortal Awards
Your Shot: How Area 23 Elevated Kids with CF to Social Distancing Influencers
Advertising Agency
New York, USA
CCO Tim Hawkey speaks to LBB’s Addison Capper about a smart campaign that’s educating teens on how to deal with social distancing while empowering people with cystic fibrosis
Everyone is feeling the effects of social distancing but one of the groups hit hardest are teenagers. During some of their most formative years they've been cut off from social circles, are unable to play team sports, and have missed out on all manner of key events like graduations and birthdays. They're also grappling with the actual act of social distancing and how to maintain some sort of social life from afar. 

While brainstorming about ways to communicate social distancing messaging to teens, FCB Health Network company Area 23 had an epiphany. Kids with cystic fibrosis (CF) are already experts in social distancing. Due to the nature of the condition, people with CF are much more at risk from everyday germs than people without, so social distancing in varying forms is of lifelong importance to them. 

So, Area 23 enlisted a crew of teens and tweens with CF to teach other teens a thing or two about social distancing. Dubbed The Social Distance Squad, this excellent project is not only educating teens on social distancing but has also elevated young people with CF to the role of thought leaders and influencers. The multichannel platform has been brought to life by Area 23 and five different US-based CF organisations: Claire’s Place Foundation (Los Angeles, CA), Piper’s Angels (Jupiter, FL), the Bonnell Foundation (Detroit, MI), Attain Health (Red Lodge, MT) and the Boomer Esiason Foundation (New York, NY).

It facilitates the sharing of encouraging and inspiring stories, and quick tips on things like how to stay connected and happy during lockdowns and how to talk with friends about agreeing to social distancing ground rules to safely visit each other. They have connected with teens through social media videos, virtually visited learning institutions, and provided a direct pathway for young people to share what they are struggling with related to their Covid-19 world. Teens can also ask for personalised advice from The Social Distance Squad.

LBB's Addison Capper spoke with Area 23 chief creative officer Tim Hawkey to find out more. 

LBB> What's the starting point of this project? What was the light bulb moment of recognising kids with CF as social distancing experts?

Tim> We started with an internal brief, in the first days of lockdown, on how to get teens on board with social distancing, mask wearing, not going stir-crazy, etc. And as the creative process goes, one creative who had experience working for a pharma brand had the epiphany: ‘kids with CF have been doing this all their lives. What if we made them our experts?’

LBB> The campaign is aimed at educating teens about social distancing - what research informed the importance of that approach?

Tim> It doesn’t take a lot of research to know inherently that teens are a tough audience to turn. We knew we needed to avoid having a message coming from a brand, institution or, even worse, a bunch of grown ups. So that actually drove the creative thinking. How do we get teens to help other teens socially distance?


LBB> Once you had the idea locked in, what were the next steps? How did you go about getting your 'influencers' involved?

Tim> Each of our partner organisations has a large membership base, and they did the recruiting simply by reaching out directly to parents and young adults who they thought would be great for it. Every single person they reached out to said yes.

LBB> Once you had the squad, how did you go about building the initial content? And how much direction did you give the influencers? Was it a case of letting their experience shine or a bit more pointed?

Tim> We had a list of topics in mind, but it wasn’t until we spoke to the kids that we realised just how many topics there were. Topics like facemask fashions, how to decline a hangout politely, dating from a distance, staying positive, etc. It all centres around mental health, which really underscored for us that this is not just about a virus, it’s about the mental health of millions of teens.

LBB> This content has been running since the beginning of spring and has been quite wide-ranging. Can you summarize the type of content that has been running, where it's been showing and why?

Tim> In the beginning, our CF experts made appearances in virtual classrooms around the US, leading Q&As and sharing their tips. As the campaign evolved, the Squad members filmed video lessons about staying healthy and happy on Instagram, YouTube, Snapchat and TikTok. With the most recent expansion, teens can now sign up for mediated one-on-one and group sessions on the website, and interact with the squad directly.  

LBB> I feel like there are two sides to this campaign - it's empowering for kids with CF but also educational for teens that don't have the condition. In your view, what are the main aims and ambitions of this campaign? Did that double-sided element of the campaign inform your approach?

Tim> There are two sides to the campaign. First, we are facing a health crisis the likes of which we’ve never seen. Yes, there is a terrible virus. But on top of it there is misinformation, ignorance, politics, fatigue and a host of other human behavioural issues. And these behavioural issues are allowing the virus to run unchecked and kill in the US. So, we all need to do our part to try to change behaviour. Now the CF community has the chance to really help spread the message that social distancing is possible.

And yes, on the flip side, to your second point, the CF community has always felt like castaways, and now they get to be in the spotlight as the social influencers our country needs the most right now. And a nice side effect is that we get to raise awareness and understanding of the positivity, innovation and resilience of the CF community. Now the world can know just how awesome these kids are.


LBB> What kind of reaction have you seen to this campaign?

Tim> The PR has been great, so far. Hundreds of news pickups and we’re starting to see more in-depth stories too. And many of our contacts have related stories about family members or friends with CF, and how the program has personally touched them.

LBB> How is the campaign set to evolve in the future?

Tim> There is lots to come! We have a few young celebrities that are interested in sharing the content. We’ll be making more videos with the Squad. And we are open to corporate sponsors that can help us with a media push.

We are also looking to recruit more CF kids to join the Squad!  

LBB> What were the trickiest components and how did you overcome them?

Tim> Working with kids can sometimes be tough. Or should we say, working with overprotective parents can sometimes be tough. These are the parents of kids who got a devastating diagnosis at an early age, so CF parents are as protective as they come. For any of these videos of CF kids, there is a parent just off camera making sure everything was above board.

LBB> Any parting thoughts?

Tim> Please everyone, wear a mask, socially distance, stay at home if you can. The only way we’re going to beat this thing is to put our own needs aside, and do what’s right for the whole. I really hope this message sinks in soon in this country. If they don’t, it’s going to be a long and difficult haul.

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