The hot dog slowly falling from the sky, held aloft by a surgical mask parachute, that loomed behind Gov. Doug Ducey during a July 30, 2020, press conference almost wasn't even a hot dog. It could have been a beer bottle, a guitar or a dumbbell, according to public records.
But the governor chose the hot dog.
Tim Riester, the CEO of Riester advertising agency, was one of the creators of the 15-second PSA to encourage Arizonans to wear masks to limit the spread of COVID-19 that featured the hot dog drifting from the sky with the caption “Save live sports. Wear a mask." Riester produced the ad, but collaborated with nine other advertising agencies in the state to develop ideas for free, while the state government would front the cost to get the selected advertisements more views.
At the time, Ducey said the state would spend $3 million on the advertising. The governor's office would not answer questions about how much was actually spent.
The ad was a response to the state's first major peak in COVID-19 cases, and came some six weeks after Ducey allowed local governments to mandate mask use. Its goal was to persuade Arizonans to wear masks as a common-sense strategy to mitigate spread of the novel coronavirus.
Riester told the Arizona Mirror that it was a “special moment" in his three-decade career to work with the other agencies for the greater good.
“It was a time where all of our businesses were really hurt by the pandemic, but by sharing the responsibility, we were able to do the right thing for the state," he said in a phone interview.
According to public records, the Riester agency pitched six ideas and landed two: The parachuting hot dog and one pushing back on the idea that wearing a mask wasn't manly.
“Several recently published studies … show that many men are hesitant to wear masks or take other measures to slow the spread of COVID-19 because they feel these activities make them look weak," the pitch behind the “masks are masculine" idea read. “This campaign quickly and directly proves the opposite."
The ideas that were not selected by Ducey and his office included a coordinated campaign from some of Arizona's most notable athletes, a campaign just called “#MAZK" (deliberately misspelling “mask" to incorporate “AZ"), a simple campaign titled “masks work," that focuses on Arizonans wearing masks for the purpose of getting back to work and one other idea aimed at feeling “empathy toward job creators."
Ducey's office repeatedly declined to answer questions about the parachuting hot dog ad or the process to select it. Instead, it provided a written statement when 177 pages of records were handed over. The records were also missing requested information without any explanation provided.
“The COVID-19 advertising campaign was intended to promote public health and allow Arizona to remain open for business during the pandemic," CJ Karamargin, Ducey's communications director, wrote. “There are so many examples of community members stepping up to volunteer their services. That includes the time and effort volunteered from local advertising agencies to communicate public health strategies to Arizonans across the state."
'Toxic' politics or just a bad idea?
The parachuting hot dog ad was roundly criticized and mocked immediately, with a lot of confusion about why a hot dog was used to encourage mask use at all. Records show Ducey's top staffers blamed the backlash on politics rather than the idea potentially being bad.
But the records showed that Ducey's top aides chose the hot dog option over other pitches, including initial suggestions from the Riester agency that the parachuting item be a beer bottle to “save your favorite bar" or a guitar to “save live music" or a dumb bell to “save your local gym."
Riester's chief creative officer Tom Ortega explained the purpose of the PSA to Arizona Republic columnist Bill Goodykoontz. After, Ducey's then-chief of staff Daniel Scarpinato wrote to the Riester agency, “Your team did a great job. We are in a very toxic political environment."
Riester, the CEO, replied minutes later, “The political environment is nuts. You are doing the right thing and it will save lives and our economy. Keep pushing!!"
In another email, he wrote, “Let's kick this virus' ass and get our population and economy back in shape!"
Riester told the Mirror that wearing a mask became highly politicized from “the federal leader at the time," and credits that for the negative reaction, not because it was a hot dog using a mask as a parachute. (He was referencing Donald Trump, but would not name him directly.)
“I think that created some negativity around any message that could be published with masks, and that's unfortunate that we see that still today where a lot of people — because of mixed messaging — didn't get a vaccine or they didn't wear a mask, and now a lot of those are the people who are in the ICU," Riester said.
June and July of 2020 were the highest points at the time for all Covid metrics in the state. Arizona was the worst place for Covid in the world — a feat it would accomplish again six months later — and deaths were continuing to climb rapidly.
Ducey had spent months resisting calls for a statewide mandate for mask use in public. At weekly COVID-19 media briefings, he paid lip service to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommendations that people wear masks, but refused to be seen wearing a mask or to let cities and counties require masks — an action they couldn't take because Ducey had barred them from doing so. But after weeks of public pressure, he relented and untied the cities' hands, allowing them to impose local mask mandates.
More than 19,000 Arizonans have succumbed to the virus and more than 1 million have tested positive to date.
Alec Esteban Thomson, Ducey's former director of strategic initiatives and campaigns, led the state's “Mask Up Arizona" campaign and ran point on the effort to find the advertisements. According to several email exchanges, Thomson, Scarpinato and Daniel Ruiz (Ducey's current chief of staff who was the state's COO at the time) are the ones who selected the hot dog. Riester said he was never given a concrete reason as to why Ducey's office liked the hot dog more than his other pitches.
Thomson wrote to Riester during the planning stages that he thought the ads “have real potential for impact." Thomson now works for the local ad agency Lavidge, one of the ten agencies involved in the planning, and could not be reached for comment.
Riester also said he had not heard from Ducey or his office about doing another ad to get people to mask up again.
The parachuting hot dog ad, and the mockery it prompted, still seems to be a sore subject for the governor. When a reporter referenced the ad at a recent media event, Ducey snapped at the press pool.
Best of the wurst?
The most comprehensive pitch that never made it into a finalized version incorporated a social media campaign that would reward citizens for opting to mask up. It was called “protect your game" and compared wearing a mask to prevent Covid to famous professional athletes who must wear masks to protect their face from injury.
Arizona Cardinals quarterback Kyler Murray, Arizona Diamondbacks catcher Carson Kelley and former Arizona Coyotes' goalie Darcy Kuemper would each be shown wearing their respective masks for their sports.
“The campaign will inspire our audience to gear up, too," the pitch read. “Through the words and voices of our local sports icons, they will get the message that masks are for people who want to keep playing. So, everyone needs to get theirs on. Or spend the rest of the year on the sideline."
The targeted audience for the ad was men, people between the ages of 20-30 and 40-45 and also the Hispanic and Spanish speaking communities as those — at the time — were the ones with the highest positivity, according to some research.
Arizonans who wore masks could also post selfies using the internet hashtag “score my mask" and enter to win signed memorabilia from one of the aforementioned athletes.
Ducey did not pick that idea.
Instead, he went with the hot dog.
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