Creative industries are uniting around mental health as the pandemic takes its toll on America.
The month of May this year is a requiem for milestones many Americans are missing—high school proms, college commencements, backyard parties with toasts to the future.
Incoming college freshmen who would normally look forward to meeting new roommates are now wondering if campus will open at all. Twentysomethings working their way through college may have had to drop their summer courses, while others are wondering if they can afford the fall semester (online or not).
Pandemic-related fear is bearing down on innocence, explaining why Americans ages 18 to 30 have more pandemic-related worries than any other age group.
In addition to having the most dire financial problems, Gen Z’ers and the youngest millennials are also the ones most using words such as angry, lonely, irritable, sad, depressed, isolated, tired, and anxious on social platforms, according to the Ad Council, the non-profit producing nationwide public service campaigns about being #alonetogether, the need to #stayhome, and tributes to essential workers while singing to Alicia Keys.
These new social norms are loose rocks on top of the country’s mountainous mental health crisis.
Whereas 48,400 Americans died by suicide in 2018, a new study predicts that the rampant unemployment, isolation and uncertainty caused by Covid-19 could lead to 75,000 “deaths of despair” from suicide and alcohol and drug abuse.
In 2017, nearly 18,000 people ages 10 to 34 died by suicide, the second leading cause of death for that age group, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. For every youth suicide, it is estimated that 100 to 200 others make an attempt.
And so it falls on the shoulders of the advertising, entertainment and media industries to keep society from becoming threadbare; it’s taking an adept mix of psychology, creativity, and airwaves.
Coinciding with Mental Health Awareness Month, the Ad Council, MTV and ViacomCBS’ Entertainment & Youth Brands are releasing new assets on AloneTogether.com and recruiting TikTok stars to share tips for staying emotionally healthy.
From Madison Vanderveen (@madiit), known for her dancing and lip syncing videos, to Hailey Sani (@hailsani), who also has a “TMI: questions girls are too afraid to ask boys” YouTube channel, TikTokers from around the world are posting videos in hopes that a combined audience of 23 million people will follow their positive examples.
The updated AloneTogether hub includes tools on how to stay calm, stay connected and stay active, including a digital coloring book featuring the most memorable moments from MTV & VH1 reality shows. Audiences can access services to support emotional and physical wellness, find opportunities for connection, and learn actionable ways to combat negative feelings.
While today’s MTV is nothing like Gen X’s music video channel, it has been at the forefront of mental health issues for decades. When Kurt Cobain shot himself in April 1994, MTV News anchor Kurt Loder was there, reading a breaking news report that he held in his hand.
In fact, the music channel’s coverage of the musician’s death would be the subject of a June 1994 article in the American Journalism Review, which quoted Jon Katz, the novelist and former media critic and CBS producer who was at New York magazine at the time: “There aren’t three teenagers in America saying, ‘Gee, the New York Times covered this thing better.’ They’re saying, ‘MTV understands our culture.’”
It’s fitting, then, that a music video is at the center of the ad industry’s mental health messaging.
As TikTokers chat, as MTV fans color and chill, the Ad Council is also rebooting its Seize the Awkward campaign. Launched in 2018 in partnership with The Jed Foundation, American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, and pro bono creative agency Droga5, the project features videos of icons such as Billie Eilish who open up about mental health.
Droga5 chose 24-year-old Queens rapper and commercial voiceover talent Akinyemi for the Seize the Awkward musical collab. “Whatever Gets You Talking” is a humorous tune inviting young people to confront the seriousness of distress.
“Worried your friend’s struggling but don’t know how to reach out?…
You could write ‘em a text or knit ‘em a sweater. If you can’t be together you could write ‘em a letter.
You could ask in a GIF or ask in a dance; you could say ça va if your friend’s from France…
If you think you should check in, yeah, you should.”
The music video, 30- and 60-second commercials went live yesterday; the video will also air May 16 during “Graduate Together: America Honors the Class of 2020,” a virtual celebration to be aired on every major network and CNN. Former President Obama is giving the commencement address.
“Akinyemi’s a talented up-and-coming Gen Z’er who knows what will legitimately connect with other people in his age group,” says Ellyn Fisher, Ad Council SVP of Marketing and Communications. “He’s also a mental health advocate and truly believes in the cause. After hearing his take on the song, everything sort of clicked for the Droga team.”
Off they went, with centuries of inspiration guiding the project. Akinyemi, the artist’s last name, means “fated to be a warrior” in the 16,000-year-old Yoruban language. Puerto Rican filmmaker Kristian Mercado Figueroa directed the music video remotely.
The result is a kaleidoscope of Akinyemi close-ups, animations, and live cameos from a hot list of artists and personalities including: “All About That Bass” pop icon Meghan Trainor; Addison Rae, the fifth-most followed person on TikTok; father-and-sons dancing sensation The McFarlands; and mxmtoon, the 19-year-old California singer whose album, recorded in her parents’ guest bedroom, has been streamed more than 100 million times.
“Whatever Gets You Talking” is complemented by a suite of digital, social, radio and broadcast assets directing to seizetheawkward.org/coronavirus, a landing page offering young people creative ways to manage their wellbeing and check in on their friends.
To make it easy for young people to act and reach out, 36 artists across the world have created over 70 specially crafted conversation starters—GIFs and stickers on GIPHY—that anyone can easily send to a friend they’re worried about.
For his part, Akinyemi spends most of his time working and little time on social media. He has posted 20 times on Instagram, where he has about 14,2000 followers. His LinkedIn page lists his voicework for brands such as Golden State Warriors, Pottery Barn, Sprite and Spotify.
Humble and earnest, he keeps prestigious company. The ASCAP Foundation (American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers) granted him the 2019 Harold Adamson Lyric Award, named after the 20th century Hollywood songwriter, in recognition of “his talent and an intelligent and sensitive use of language.”
Being part of Seize the Awkward could very well be Akinyemi’s big breakout moment. Authenticity got him the job.
We’re all finding ourselves this season. a time for self-growth, to look within and strengthen all those weaknesses this pandemic arose that maybe we might have glanced over before. At the same time, we’re finding our happy place or that area in our mind that we can escape on a daily basis. For me, it’s in nature, however brief.
Akinyemi on Instagram