WHO Wants to Market Vaccines Like Burgers and Soda

On August 18, 2015, the World Health Organization (WHO) issued a press release from Geneva, Switzerland titled “Vaccine hesitancy: A growing challenge for immunization programmes.”1 The focus of the release was  to highlight views expressed by public health officials in a special edition of the journal Vaccine, which was “guest-edited” and published by the WHO.1

Foremost among the views was the continuing concern by health officials over the number of people around the world who remain unvaccinated despite the availability of vaccines. According to the release, approximately 1 out of 5 children globally do not get vaccinated. The WHO attributes the situation to a phenomenon called “vaccine hesitancy,” which the organization describes as a “delay in acceptance or refusal of safe vaccines despite availability of vaccination services.”

The release quotes Philippe Duclos, PhD, head of WHO’s Immunization Policy Unit. “Vaccines can only improve health and prevent deaths if they are used, and immunization programs must be able to achieve and sustain high vaccine uptake rates,” says Dr. Duclos. “Vaccine hesitancy is an increasingly important issue for country immunization programs.”1

The WHO attributes vaccine hesitancy to:

Concerns about vaccine safety can be linked to vaccine hesitancy, but safety concerns are only one of many factors that may drive hesitancy. Vaccine hesitancy can be caused by other factors such as: negative beliefs based on myths, e.g. that vaccination of women leads to infertility; misinformation; mistrust in the health care professional or health care system; the role of influential leaders; costs; geographic barriers and concerns about vaccine safety.1

The WHO views the issue as a “complex” one. It believes that the answer to successfully addressing it is “effective communications,” which the organization considers to be the “key to dispelling fears, addressing concerns and promoting acceptance of vaccination.” ….

In the United States, news reports about vaccine-related deaths are too numerous to list, but here are two during the past year: “Indiana Baby Dies in His Sleep Days After Receiving 6 Vaccine Doses”21 and “California Infant Dies after 8 Vaccines, Family Gets Him Back from Hospital Cremated.”22 

In October 2014, the WHO’s Strategic Advisory Group of Experts (SAGE) published an extensive report on vaccine hesitancy, looking at different approaches to help shape the public’s behavior toward vaccination.24 The report specifically explored marketing strategies employed by other organizations such as the International Food and Beverage Alliance (IFBA), which includes companies like Coca Cola Company, Pepsico and McDonalds. According to the SAGE report, “Key industry messages to the Working Group included the following (points particularly relevant to vaccine hesitancy are in italics):”23

  • All that really matters is the power of the story.
  • Consumers care about benefits, not supporting facts.
  • Brand = product + compelling story.
  • Reason leads to conclusions, while emotion leads to action (i.e. change comes from feelings, not facts).
  • It is important to win the hearts, minds, and now, voice.
  • Due to social media, consumers have a mouth piece and a large portion of media consumption is media generated by other consumers.
  • The rise of social media has benefits and risks. You can share information on a massive scale at zero cost, but there is less control.
  • Consumers believe more in messages from other consumers than from big institutions.
  • It is important to find the intersection of brand topics (what the brand wants to talk about) and audience interests (what existing and desired audiences care about).
  • Consumer’s rationale for decisions may not reflect the true motivation (e.g. give fact-based reasons, but emotional reasons may have in fact driven the behavior).
  • It is impossible to please all consumers, and some will not like you.
  • One big idea needs to drive the entire communications strategy. Only one or two messages can be communicated—the rest must be sacrificed.
  • Communication is increasingly about dialogue back and forth in the context of social media.
  • A communication brief includes: competitive content landscape, target consumer, brand opportunity, communication task, core insight, core essence, functional benefit, emotional benefit, meaningful product truth, brand personality, obtainable brand proposition, key performance indicators. Effective communication strategies are not simple.23


… Fichte laid it down that education should aim at destroying free will, so that, after pupils have left school, they shall be incapable, throughout the rest of their lives, of thinking or acting otherwise than as their schoolmasters would have wished. But in his day this was an unattainable ideal: … In future such failures are not likely to occur where there is dictatorship. Diet, injections, and injunctions will combine, from a very early age, to produce the sort of character and the sort of beliefs that the authorities consider desirable, and any serious criticism of the powers that be will become psychologically impossible. Even if all are miserable, all will believe themselves happy, because the government will tell them that they are so. …

— Bertrand Russell, “The Impact of Science on Society” 1953


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