Musings on the magic and mystery of two era-defining viral campaigns

Written by Kelly Cummins

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The most resonant PR and marketing campaigns have always tapped into the ‘collective psyche’ of any given segment of humanity – be that a region, generation, subculture, political movement, or another group.

What works has always been something of a mystery, but no more so than now; our lifestyles – and probably our mindsets – blowing on the winds of this unpredictable, unprecedented global pandemic.

Thoughts and feelings create behaviours – and cultivating that ultimate call to action has never been more about tapping into the hearts and minds of an audience…but what’s going on in there?

For PR and marketing agencies from Hampshire to Houston, the when it comes to dreaming up engaging campaign concepts, we must evolve as best we can within this nebulous situation…and sometimes it’s just impossible to predict what will get attention.

Two viral campaigns that have engaged millions, captured the public spirit, and defined the era of COVID-19 are Captain Tom’s walk for the NHS and – of course – Clap for Carers.

Captain Tom – 100 years old, 100 laps…and probably 100% audience reach

Operating as NHS Charities Together, The Association of NHS Charities is a federation of over 250 charitable organisations that support the National Health Service (NHS), its staff, volunteers and patients. The organisation acts as collective voice for NHS charities as well as coordinating national fundraising efforts.

In a pre-COVID 19 world, how many heads were scratched in the quest to come up with novel PR ideas around fundraising? And then – as if by magic – millions of pounds were raised at a critical point in NHS history thanks to the simple, home-grown efforts of a 99-year old second World War veteran.

Here’s what happened…

In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, and with his hundredth birthday approaching, Captain Tom Moore began a fundraising campaign for NHS Charities Together. He aimed to complete one hundred 25-metre laps of his garden, with the help of a walking frame.

With “Tom’s 100th Birthday Walk for the NHS” he aimed to raise £1,000 via JustGiving. But once the British media started covering the story, contributions went through the roof. Moore appeared on Michael Ball’s Sunday programme on BBC Radio 2. The donations just kept coming…

As his 100th birthday arrived on 16 April, and he completed his 100th lap in front of a guard of honour from the 1st Battalion of the Yorkshire Regiment, Tom had raised a nearly £33 million for the NHS (plus thousands more expected in tax rebates under the Gift Aid scheme). His humble endeavour had beat the previous JustGiving record of £5.2 million.

That’s not the only record he’s broken. To mark Moore’s 100th lap, the singer Michael Ball sang “You’ll Never Walk Alone” for him live on BBC Breakfast. The performance was made into a digital single featuring the NHS Voices of Care Choir, along with Moore’s spoken words. The record reached number one the UK Top 40, making Moore the oldest person to achieve that position. All the money made from the track was donated to NHS workers. Captain Moore – who has since been knighted – joined Twitter to express his thanks.

Why did it work?

More than 1.5 million individuals donated money to Captain Tom’s 100th Birthday Walk for the NHS. His challenge became a regular feature on just about every news platform and his feat will be remembered as one of the definitive media moments of lockdown.

It achieved so much coverage because it ticked the essential boxes of any good PR story – it was surprising, captured the public mood, and hit at the perfect time. But it was more than that…it gave people inspiration. The story tapped into a desire for hope in a time of despair. If Tom could keep going, so could we.

Speaking to PR Week, Hope & Glory co-founder and chief creative officer James Gordon-Macintosh said:

“The media are looking for some stories that give their readers a break…From that perspective, it’s almost as though it’s the August silly season in the middle of a war zone – quite surreal in so many ways.”

This COVID-19 crisis has so often been compared to a war. Captain Tom himself said:

“We’re a little bit like having a war at the moment. But the doctors and the nurses, they’re all on the front line, and all of us behind, we’ve got to supply them and keep them going with everything that they need, so that they can do their jobs even better than they’re doing now.”

Funds Tom raised are being spent on well-being packs for NHS staff and devices to enable hospital patients to keep in contact with family members, as well as community groups who support COVID patients once they go home from hospital.

Clap for carers

When future generations ask us about the spring of 2020, clapping on our doorsteps at 8pm every Thursday night will probably be one of the first things we mention.

Also known as Clap for the NHS or Clap for Key Workers, Clap for Carers is a gesture of appreciation for doctors, nurses, and carers on the frontline of the coronavirus crisis.

Since 26th March, in the first week of lockdown, many millions of people across the UK have gathered in their gardens, balconies and on street corners, sometimes performing on musical instruments or bashing saucepans, to create a visual and audible display of gratitude and support.

Who would have thought such a simple community act could become so widespread and so culturally significant?

When grassroots grow BIG

Clap for Carers is another example of a ‘viral’ campaign that has evolved organically – not from the masterminds of PR gurus but from a grassroots level.

The idea for the event came from Annemarie Plas, a Dutch mother and yogini from London, who had seen a similar event in the Netherlands and it quickly gathered momentum on social media with the hashtag #clapforcarers. Annemarie has no connection to the government or the NHS, she was just at home like so many of us and wanted to show appreciation for all the key workers doing their best to keep us safe and well.

As light emerges at the end of the lockdown tunnel and the ‘tradition’ reaches it’s 10th week this week, we will #clapforcarers for one last time. But there will be a National Clap for Our Carers Day on Thursday 25th March 2021, proving what a mark it has made on the collective consciousness

Why did it work?

When you have everyone from the royal family, the prime minister, Sir Paul McCartney and Sir Elton John to Deirdre in Flat 5 doing the same thing, at the same time, every week, for 10 weeks – some kind of powerful magic and mystery is at work.

Or maybe it’s just psychology? Just like the determined sense of hope we got from watching Captain Tom Moore walk the walk, we feel a comforting sense of solidarity as we emerge from yet another week of isolation to cheer, clap and smile with our neighbours. We are all in it together!

Speaking to i News, a behavioural scientist and senior lecturer from the University of Huddersfield from Dr Chris Cameron said the reason Britons are continuing to come together every Thursday is “hardwired into our psychology”:

“As a species, human beings need to affiliate with others to survive because we’re not a very strong species.

“That affiliation is especially important in hard times. This pandemic has highlighted how much we need the people who are our carers. And I think for that reason it’s become even more important to show our affiliation and appreciation for them. That’s hardwired into our psychology. It’s something that will inevitably arise when these difficult times are upon us.”

Professor Benjamin Voyer, a behavioural scientist who is a visiting fellow at the London School of Economics, believes this is also to do with social identity theory. The group we identify with – whether it be our country, family, or favourite football team – is “important to our self-esteem and sense of identity.”

“Clapping conveys a sense of togetherness, of belonging,” he adds.

Campaign success in a post-COVID world means creating connection

What these era-defining campaigns prove is that PR and marketing campaigns must strive for emotional connection. Yes, it often happens mysteriously and organically, but it can just as easily emerge from taking the time to find empathy with an audience and using the insights that offers to take creativity in an honest direction.

The Romans founder and executive creative director Joe Mackay-Sinclair told PR Week that he also sees creativity as being even more crucial now.

“Creativity has never been more vital to the existential threat facing PR,” he says. “When 99 per cent of the news is about one subject, how do you possibly cut through without an idea?

“PR’s strength lies in its ability to be ‘channel agnostic’. Social media usage is through the roof. Despite (or because of) the crisis we’ve never craved conversation and connection more, and that’s got to be a huge opportunity for brave clients looking to weather the storm.”

Do you need help reconnecting with your audience as the world slowly returns to a ‘new normal’?

Brevity is a PR and marketing agency based near Basingstoke, here to help you create campaigns that speak to the hearts and minds of your clients and customers. Call us today on 01256 536 000 or email