Can marketing stop the anti-vaccine epidemic? The short answer is maybe

Immunity Charm bracelet with timeline of childhood vaccinations
The anti-vaccine issue needs a local, peer-to-peer solution, panelists agreed at Lions Health, where this vaccine-promoting Immunity Charm bracelet won Grand Prix honors two years ago. (Pixabay/qimono)

If UN Foundation exec Rajesh Mirchandani expected to get any answers when he asked a room full of marketers how to change skeptics’ minds about vaccines—well, he was disappointed.

After sketching out the problem, which starts with the frustrating fact that vaccines are one of healthcare’s most obvious success stories, Mirchandani put the question to his panelists, who had a few ideas. Then he put his Lions Health audience on the spot by asking them what they would do to combat disinformation about vaccines.

The experts onstage proposed and immediately rejected a few things—publicity for a family who’d lost a child to a vaccine-preventable disease, for one, got a quick thumbs down.

They pointed out that social media is where skepticism seems to breed these days, but also noted that using social media to combat “fake news” on social media is like fighting fire with fire.

In promoting vaccines, “we haven’t adjusted to where people are getting their information from,” said McCann Health's global medical director, Dan Carucci. When he was a kid, people followed doctors’ orders. “We’re behind the curve now," he said. "How do we get ahead of it?”

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Talking to the right people, for one thing. Leading the anti-vaccine charge is a small group of absolute deniers, the CDC's Rebecca Martin pointed out. On the other side are those who are true believers. And then there’s the people in the middle—a “group of persuadables,” as Martin put it. “They’re not for or against. It’s very vaccine-specific, and depends on what they’ve read and what they believe.”

So put the message in the mouths of the kinds of people these “persuadables” would listen to, Johnson & Johnson VP Seema Kumar suggested. And maybe talking to those people on social media would help. But a “social campaign” in the old-fashioned sense—in the real world—would be even better. Maybe even draft face-to-face “social influencers" as J&J did with its DREAMS program in sub-Saharan Africa. It brought in teenagers who were natural leaders in their communities to help reduce new HIV infections.

As another example of a peer-to-peer campaign that worked, Kumar described J&J's mothers2mothers initiative to help pregnant women with HIV. When a future mother was diagnosed with HIV, another mother would step in as a mentor. The two women would then communicate directly by text or WhatsApp. The program was so effective, the government adopted it, Kumar said.

How that approach would look in an anti-disinformation campaign wasn’t clear. The persuadables would need to trust the source, whoever it might be, Carucci pointed out.

Which brings us to one audience member's response to Michandani's questioning. John Cahill, global CEO at McCann Health, which won agency network of the year the night before, stood up to say that understanding why people are hesitant about vaccination is a key step. Those insights would fuel a "more convincing discussion," he said. And he seemed to think that pivoting the vaccine discussion to community protection from individual disease prevention might resonate.

Nothing will happen without some sort of team effort, Cahill said. “We have to somehow get all the stakeholders you mentioned around a table and say, 'We're not doing enough in vaccines.' "

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Fast forward a minute and a half, and another audience member—an attendee from Young & Rubicam—stood up. "There's a role here for all of us communicators," she said. "Let's get us all in a room, cross-channel, cross-agency. This is a huge public health issue and we have the smartest brains on the planet in our industry ... if we can't get ourselves into a room and fix this, then nobody can."

Gesturing toward Cahill, she put him on the spot. "McCann Health is perfectly poised to lead something like that," she said.

Besides its network and agency honors at Lions Health this year, McCann Health won a Grand Prix for Good Lion two years ago for the “Immunity Charm,” a bracelet that enabled child vaccinations in Afghanistan. So it does have a history of problem-solving in the vaccine world.

So what's next? No one set a time and place. Mirchandani didn’t force the audience to open up their smartphone calendars. But the vaccines issue, always a hot topic at the Lions meeting, will likely still be there when they're ready.