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Public Health Officials Face A Need To Market Coronavirus Vaccination

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Earlier this week, the drug maker Pfizer announced its coronavirus vaccine may be more than 90% effective in preventing infection. And while the news has inspired a lot of hope around containing the virus, public health officials still need to market the vaccine. Polls show that up to two-thirds of Americans say they are unlikely to take a coronavirus vaccine if it becomes available. Sally Herships and Cardiff Garcia from our daily economics podcast, The Indicator From Planet Money, take a look at what Elvis can teach us about vaccine marketing.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

SALLY HERSHIPS: The year was 1956. Polio was running rampant. People were terrified. This disease was coming for kids. The weird thing was there was a vaccine. But there were some problems.

PHILIP GRAHAM: There was a lot of fear around the polio vaccine. And that was one of the big barriers to people adopting it - is they were just scared.

HERSHIPS: Philip Graham is a marketer in New York City. He says there was this one specific group that was really stubborn, would not get vaccinated - teenagers. So an expert was brought in to help sell the vaccine.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HOUND DOG")

ELVIS PRESLEY: (Singing) You ain't nothing but a hound dog.

HERSHIPS: Elvis Presley.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESLEY: This is Elvis Presley. If you believe polio is beaten, I ask you to listen.

CARDIFF GARCIA: Elvis Presley was set to appear on "The Ed Sullivan Show," and he was asked, would he agree to take the vaccine in front of the press? He said, yeah, I'll do it. And a doctor from the New York City Health Department gave him the shot backstage before the show. But Elvis was part of a much bigger strategy called the March of Dimes for which people donated small amounts of money and teenagers were involved. They did public education. They helped persuade other teens to take the vaccine. And ultimately, in 1979, polio was eradicated in the United States.

HERSHIPS: Phil Graham says when it comes to marketing a vaccine, a lot of times it isn't government figures that make the best salespeople. That's why bringing in Elvis was such a smart move.

GRAHAM: Elvis was sort of a trusted figure that people could buy into. And yeah, why - he's not trying to pull a fast one over on me. He doesn't have any other motivations except, you know, just doing probably what's right.

GARCIA: We should note, by the way, that Phil is not just an Elvis history buff or a vaccine history buff. Phil was also one of the first heads of marketing for the Truth campaign, which, in case you don't remember, was an iconic ad campaign that was launched back in 2000 that was aimed at convincing teenagers not to smoke.

HERSHIPS: The campaign was considered a major success. It got about half a million teenagers not to smoke. It saved billions of dollars in health care costs. And when it comes to marketing a coronavirus vaccine, Phil says marketers can learn a lot of lessons from the Truth campaign.

GRAHAM: You know, sometimes carrots work better than sticks, especially when it comes to public health messaging. And, you know, by the time the vaccine does come around and is available to everyone, we'll all have lived with it for about a year. So fear factor messaging isn't going to work because we've hopefully, you know - touch wood - seen the worst of it.

GARCIA: We do not yet, of course, have a vaccine for coronavirus. And public sentiment could shift once a vaccine is approved. But Phil says Elvis's work on the polio vaccine is a good example of how marketing might help sell the coronavirus vaccine once it is developed.

HERSHIPS: Sally Herships.

GARCIA: Cardiff Garcia, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.