A federal health agency reportedly discussed a $250 million advertising campaign involving Santa Claus actors. The performers would have been offered early access to a potential coronavirus vaccine if they appeared in commercials promoting the plan. The plan was hatched by Michael Caputo, a Department of Health and Human Services assistant secretary who took medical leave last month, reports the Wall Street Journal. The agency is not going forward with the idea.
The Santa Claus plan would also cover actors who played Mrs. Claus and eves. HHS said the idea has been scrapped, and the rest of the massive "Covid 19 Public Health and Reopening America Public Service Announcements and Advertising Campaign" effort is under review, reports the Journal. The Santa program "will not be happening," and HHS Secretary Alex Azar did not know about Caputo's plan, an HHS spokesman said. Ric Erwin, the chairman of the Fraternal Order of Real Bearded Santas, told the Journal they are "extremely" disappointed the Santa plan is not happening. "This was our greatest hope for Christmas 2020, and now it looks like it won't happen," he said.
In late August, Caputo called Erwin, claiming there would be a coronavirus vaccine by mid-Thanksgiving and given to frontline workers by Thanksgiving. In the phone call, obtained by the Journal, Caputo said he could not wait to tell President Donald Trump about the idea because he is "going to love this." At one point, Erwin told Caputo, "Since you would be doing Santa a serious favor, Santa would definitely reciprocate." The official responded, "I'm in, Santa if you're in." Caputo suggested Santas could appear in up to 35 cities, and they would receive vaccinations in exchange for participating.
This Santa plan was part of the same coronavirus ad effort that involved actor Dennis Quaid and other celebrities, but it began to fizzle out. After Politico reported on the plan in September, there was worry the effort would be seen as political instead of informing the public. The plan was meant to "defeat despair, inspire hope and achieve national recovery," according to the work statement obtained by the Journal.
In particular, Quaid came under fire and confirmed on Instagram he met with Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, about the project. He said it was a mistake to see his participation in the project as an endorsement of Trump. Now, the entire project is under review. Azar "ordered a strategic review of this public health education campaign that will be led by top public health and communications experts to determine whether the campaign serves important public health purposes," HHS said.
After learning that contracts to create coronavirus ads to "defeat despair" were already awarded in early September, House Democrats criticized the idea as a misuse of taxpayer dollars. "We are concerned that the Trump Administration appears to be misusing taxpayer dollars to fund a political propaganda campaign — disguised as a public health effort — just weeks before a presidential election, and that the Administration may be improperly steering federal contracts to individuals with financial ties to senior political appointees," Reps. James Clyburn, Carolyn Maloney, and Raja Krishnamoorthi wrote.