Gardasil vaccine maker Merck appeals to parents of 9-year-olds in latest HPV awareness ad

It’s unlikely parents of 9-year-olds are thinking much about their child contracting HPV. But a new unbranded TV ad from Merck reminds them that this is precisely the age when they can start immunizing their children against the human papilloma virus to prevent future cancers.

While the Gardasil vaccine maker's past HPV awareness ads targeted parents of adolescents, this one aims slightly younger, appealing to moms and dads of the older elementary school set. It opens with a mother stealing a hug from her somewhat indifferent 9-year-old son.

“It’s started. Somewhere between a cuddle and a struggle: It’s the side hug,” she says in a voice-over. This “tween milestone” may start at age 9, she adds, and so can HPV vaccination.

Next, there’s a father dropping off his two school-age daughters. “As the ‘Dad Cab’,” he says, “it’s my cue to help protect them.” The ad ends with the tagline: “Embrace this phase. Help protect them in the next” and directs viewers to a website where they can learn more about HPV vaccination.

Like past Merck ads, the latest spot frames HPV vaccination as cancer prevention rather than protection against a sexually transmitted disease, a strategy the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has promoted to encourage more young people to get vaccinated. But the new ad's tone is decidedly lighter than the drugmaker’s previous HPV awareness spots.

In its “Not My Child” spot, which debuted in 2020, parents sternly tell the virus to “back off” and “get out of my face,” adding, “you’re not welcome here.” That replaced its controversial “Did You Know?” campaign, which featured young adults with cancer questioning their parents about whether they knew there was a preventive vaccine available when they were younger. Those ads drew media attention and sparked debate over whether they were too tough on parents.

The latest ad doesn’t mention any vaccine by name, but Gardasil 9 is the only shot marketed in the U.S. to prevent HPV infection, which causes genital warts and can lead to cervical and other cancers. The shot is approved for children and adults ages 9 to 45, although the CDC recommends routine vaccination at ages 11 and 12.

While public health officials and vaccine makers have been worried about a steep drop in routine vaccinations during the pandemic, including for HPV, sales for Gardasil appear to have rebounded. The vaccine brought in $1.5 billion in the first quarter of this year, a 60% increase from the first quarter of 2021.

That followed $5.7 billion in annual sales last year, a 39% increase over 2020. Merck has attributed the jump, in part, to expanded vaccine capacity after a more than $1 billion manufacturing investment.