Is It Time to Change the Vaccine Dialogue? Campaigns Present Opportunities for Pharma

Chip Weinstein
Chip Weinstein

While social media can be a tool for pharma to help educate the public, it has also become a forum for the public to express their views about pharma, and it's not always flattering, as evidenced by the recent antivaccine movement.


California Governor Jerry Brown signed into law a bill that effectively mandated vaccinations for all schoolchildren. Most notably, the legislation eliminates the personal-belief exemption that the antivaccine movement had used to avoid treatment and allows a vaccine exemption only with a doctor's note.


The bill came in response to the measles outbreak that originated early this year at Disneyland and resulted in 117 reported infections across multiple states. The outbreak led to an outcry across the US about whether California's allowance of unvaccinated children could set off a domino effect throughout the country.


California has been central to the antivaccination movement. A social-media campaign, #HearUs, rose in response to the government's actions. People who consider themselves opposed to vaccines, often referred to as “antivaxxers,” shared images and stories of alleged adverse effects of vaccinations and rallied around information released by a reported whistleblower who allegedly said the CDC has secretly been hiding vaccine information.


The campaigns have stretched into attacking Planned Parenthood for a supposed but disproved link between fetal tissue and vaccinations. Wired magazine analyzed the social-media habits of antivaxxers and uncovered elaborate strategies and tactics that target legislators and celebrities to build clout and dominate the conversation. They may not have won the legislative battle in California, but their ability to be loud in a chamber where there's no real opposition means they're flooding the digital landscape with their views without much counterbalance.


These antivax social-media movements are opportunities to use the same tools to spread information, expose inaccuracies and build public trust. Vaccinations may have proven effectiveness and general acceptance, but those who are skeptical and unsupportive distrust not only the vaccines but the government and legitimate sources of medical information.


The challenge is to build compelling campaigns that provide information and foster trust. Time magazine asked marketing executives how they'd approach the vaccine-branding dilemma; their advice ranged from celebrity-cage matches to gamifying infection chances. Taken together, their suggestions can help shape effective marketing strategies. Appealing to children the same way a cereal ad does or using the same personalization of storytelling tactics that the antivaxxers use but keeping the focus on people positively affected by vaccinations are potential ways to invigorate the vaccination debate.


Learnings can be taken from antitobacco campaigns like Truth. Before Truth, such campaigns came off as preaching and overly concerned with facts and figures. Truth flipped the script and exposed tobacco companies as equally preachy for youths, another “big brother” or parental figure trying to tell teens what to do.


Antivaxxers and vaccine skeptics are concerned with choice; pharma companies could make strides if they market the idea of making good choices instead of preaching about vaccines as the only solution.


Pharma also needs to approach vaccine campaigns from a cultural perspective. There are vastly different concerns across different demographics. Racial and ethnic minority groups' distrust of government and medicine might come from cultures outside the US where medical and government establishments were openly corrupt. Additionally, the US doesn't have a sparkling track record on how its medical industry has approached minorities over the years, and sensitivity to that must be taken into account.


Additionally, antivaxxers are their own cultural community, and their beliefs must be taken into account for effective marketing. They are not reachable in the same way as the general public. One former antivaxxer wrote that she had been encouraged to avoid government and healthcare literature and thus turned to third-party information that had no scientific basis. It was only after realizing she didn't agree with fellow antivaxxers on other controversial topics that she started to seek information elsewhere. To build trust and make strides in opposition to the antivax movement, pharma must understand these issues and work around them to achieve results. Helping antivaxxers realize the falsehoods of other claims and beliefs might lead them back to factual information.


As further debates and campaigns spring up from the antivax movement, pharma must be ready to share its own voice in these same spaces and become a tool that educates the public.


Chip Weinstein is CEO of Prime Access.