"They've Made It Personal": How California Is Enlisting Star Residents for Stay-at-Home PSAs

Celebrity stay-at-home PSA - Screengrabs-Split - H 2020
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Larry David doesn't do a lot of interviews. He's not a red carpet-strutting, brand-shilling, favor-cashing type. Have you tried approaching him at a party? Hint: Not his favorite. He is, after all, a social assassin (or at least plays one on TV).

So it came as a surprise to many when David put his acerbic talents to work for society's sake in a public service announcement encouraging people to stay home to curb the spread of the novel coronavirus. Or was it perfect branding? "Obviously somebody put me up to this 'cause it's generally not the kind of thing I do, but I basically want to address the idiots out there — and you know who you are," David says in the clip, accompanied by the hashtag #StayHomeSaveLives. "Go home! Watch TV! That's my advice to you. If you've seen my show, you know that nothing good comes from going out of the house. You know that."

That somebody? California Gov. Gavin Newsom.

Along with key members of his team led by director of digital Tonya LaMont, Newsom has called upon some of the state's most famous residents to record similar clips that have been posted to his various social media platforms, some with viral results. David's video, for example, shared at the official @CAgovernor account run by LaMont and retweeted to Newsom's 1.6 million Twitter followers, has been viewed 3.5 million times, followed closely by onetime Seinfeld colleague Julia Louis-Dreyfus sitting at a vanity and comically applying her own makeup that so far has 2.1 million views. Kim Kardashian West also joined in, sharing a PSA with her 64.5 million Twitter followers and 166 million on Instagram that featured her safer-at-home messaging as she struggled to keep daughter North out of the shot.

Will Ferrell dressed up in shiny gold to promote partying at home, Snoop Dogg got serious in a clip that set a record on Newsom's TikTok (2.2 million views), doctor turned comedian Ken Jeong thanked people for practicing social distancing ("Easy for me because I don't have any friends") and Kumail Nanjiani called it "our duty to do everything we can to stop the spread of this virus." Others who've helped out include former NFL star and Fox Sports analyst Tony Gonzalez, Danny Trejo and Kristin Davis.

On the East Coast, an identical effort out of Gov. Andrew Cuomo's office has seen participation from Danny DeVito, Robert De Niro, Ben Stiller, La La Anthony and Alec Baldwin, but California continues to churn them out at a higher-profile pace, putting an exclamation point on the trend of the moment.

"They are offering to do this because they are trusted messengers to their fans and followers and they want to help spread the message," LaMont explains to THR of the initiative that also had Newsom participating in an Instagram Live chat with Dwayne Johnson. "We are California, home to Hollywood, so it makes sense that we use their voices alongside the governor and his press conferences to encourage staying home and practicing social distancing. It's part of a larger communication plan to spread a message that we know works to save lives."

An unprecedented global crisis has led to extraordinary celebrity participation in offering public health messaging, with Newsom's office leading the way by calling on Hollywood constituents essentially in his backyard. For years, stars have been called into action to influence public behavior in one way or another — practicing safe sex, getting out the vote, anti-smoking or drunk driving, disaster relief, cancer screenings, human rights and so on — but it's typically nonprofits making the requests. Never before have stars showed up en masse in a matter of weeks for a public health crisis and for the office of a governor.

LaMont says they've sought out celebrity partners through a network of contacts both inside Newsom's office and out, like through the California Film Commission. They've focused on a broad swath of stars, all of whom have significant profiles, in trying to reach as many Californians as possible. "What's really great is all these celebrities come from different backgrounds and reach different audiences," LaMont points out. "It speaks to the diversity of California and the need to reach all communities."

For example, the Snoop Dogg clip was shared on Twitter but only took off when it was posted on Newsom's new TikTok account. "Imagine that Venn diagram of an audience — TikTok, Snoop Dogg and the governor," LaMont says. "It reached quite the audience — probably those who might not be watching CNN all the time. The more diverse the better, so we make sure everyone in California is paying attention to this, whether it be on local news or on Instagram."

A pandemic in a digital age requires such an effort, LaMont notes, and they've followed demographics to where they spend time: Teens are on TikTok, millennials on Instagram and older audiences on Facebook. "If we can find ways to reach all of them, that's what we're doing," she adds. "That's not to say people are not watching CNN at some point, but if they hear the message there first and that message is reinforced by Kim Kardashian West on Instagram, then they know it's important. With a lot of these celebrities — love them or hate them — at the end of the day they are lending their voice and platform. These are people who don't usually do this sort of thing. It's really significant."

LaMont says that if even one of their followers listens and takes the social distancing and stay-at-home directives to heart, then "all of this is worth it."

One of the signs that this crisis would require a new type of outreach came in mid-March when Surgeon General Jerome Adams, a member of President Trump's novel coronavirus task force, said during an interview on Good Morning America that he hoped to solicit influencers to spread the message to stay home. "We need to get Kylie Jenner and social media influencers out there in helping folks understand that, look, this is serious, this is absolutely serious. People are dying."

Jenner answered the call and posted a message to her 171 million Instagram followers, saying "the coronavirus is a real thing" and encouraged her followers to self-quarantine and stay home.

The chorus has hundreds of celebrity voices and includes everything from a hand-washing tutorial by Beyoncé and Jay-Z's daughter Blue Ivy, a quarantine tune from Randy Newman and praise from unexpected places, like when Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds thanked hometown star Ashton Kutcher for his PSA.

Dr. Wändi Bruine de Bruin, provost professor of public policy, psychology and behavioral science at the USC Sol Price School of Public Policy, tells THR that it's a good idea to lean on stars to spread the message. She cites recommendations from public health literature that state when disseminating messages for sustained behavioral changes, it's important to repeat the messages often through multiple sources and in simple ways.

"The issue is, experts are good at science, but they're not that good at talking to people and sharing their knowledge in simple ways," she says. "Celebrities are more appealing and better at delivering messages."

Bruine de Bruin says it's not a good idea to let celebrities come up with their own messages, but if they are repeating evidence-based messaging, it's fine. LaMont says their office provides talking points while allowing room for creativity. "Most everyone has just taken it and run with it," she explains, adding, "They've made it personal."

Georges C. Benjamin, the long-serving executive director of the American Public Health Association, says celebrities offer credibility, which is why they're able to influence public behavior — and it's not always used for good. He points to an example of multiple stars sharing a conspiracy theory that the novel coronavirus pandemic was caused by 5G towers. He says because the pandemic is a global crisis, there is a need to accurately communicate vital health information and counter that disinformation to every human on the planet. The 5G theories claim that the wireless towers severely impact health and immune systems, making the COVID-19 illness more devastating for humans. Scientists have called the claims "complete rubbish" but not before theories were shared on social media by those including M.I.A., John Cusack and Woody Harrelson (who later deleted his post).

"Our world has changed," Benjamin says. "We are in a communication world where every individual is their own radio, TV, Twitter and YouTube producer. Celebrities have always been willing to step up to the plate for global catastrophes, whether it's hurricanes, fires or famine, and this allows them to do that. There is a need for better education around this virus because it's so fast-moving. Like all of us, they bring their strengths and weaknesses to the table, but they have one of the biggest bullhorns in the world, which I always find fascinating and exciting. For me, it shows their contributions and commitment to humanity."

But as isolation guidelines stretch into a second month — lockdown orders remain in effect in L.A. County through May 15 — the challenge will be to continue the flood of health-based messaging. LaMont says they'll continue to work with celebrity partners, and her dream get is Beyoncé. Public health officials know that social distancing works, and Bruine de Bruin says, "What's going to be difficult now is to convince people to keep doing it."