TikTok famous? Pfizer, Moderna, J&J and AZ shoutouts on social media boost vaccine credibility—and pharmas' image

woman on laptop using social media
Pharma brands are reaching consumers in a new way lately through shoutouts in user-generated COVID-19 vaccine TikToks. (Urupong/iStock/Getty Images Plus/Getty Images)

A man in a Pfizer sweater sits down in a waiting room, notices another man in a Moderna sweater already sitting there and asks, “What are you doing here?” Turns out they’re both there for the COVID-19 vaccine job interview.

The popular TikTok video joins a growing crowd of user-generated vaccine videos that call out pharma vaccine brands Pfizer, Moderna, Johnson & Johnson and AstraZeneca. The video, also on Twitter and YouTube, began as a TV skit; its creator Jeff Wright is a comedian and writer on the "Late Night with Seth Meyers" show.

TikTok, Twitter and social media in general are swelling with COVID-19 vaccine videos and posts. While that includes vaccination card selfies and vaccine encouragement videos, it also includes pharma brand shoutouts.

“Truly it is the first time in history that the names of these major pharmaceutical companies just roll off the tongue of the average American. It’s in a positive context, and it’s a sign of the times. And social media will always reflect the signs of the times,” Wendy Blackburn, vice president at Intouch Solutions, said in an email.

On the popular Washington Post TikTok channel, producer Dave Jorgenson names the brands as he humorously explains things like efficacy or the FDA approval processes. One even highlights the Johnson & Johnson production deal with Merck to make more doses. The account has more than 900,000 followers.

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More educational-oriented vaccine TikToks—casual riffs on percentage effectiveness rates, what mRNA is or how Pfizer and Moderna vaccines might differ—have also been posted by doctors, nurses and healthcare workers. At the bottom of most of the videos is a link to a Q&A with answers from the World Health Organization on basic questions about the pandemic and the vaccines.

The hipster social credibility is new and unusual for pharma companies, which are usually better recognized—although not always well liked—by older consumers.

“Younger audiences are learning about vaccines in different ways than their parents and grandparents. The pharma companies who make the vaccines have become household names across generations, in big part because of social media,” Missy Voronyak, managing director for Real Chemistry’s social media and influencer group, said via email.

Of course, it's not just on social media but also in broader pop culture where vaccine makers' names are popping up.

Pfizer has been on "Saturday Night Live" twice in the past month—once as a Pfizer visor consolation prize on a fake game show “So You Think You Can Get the Vaccine” and again last week in a mention, along with Moderna and Johnson & Johnson, in the show's “Boomers Got the Vax” video. Not left out of the show entirely, AstraZeneca was mentioned during the show’s cold skit.

However, it wasn’t long ago when "SNL" mostly poked fun at pharma companies, with mock TV ads and jabs at long lists of side effects.

The new wave of mentions are different, though, as Blackburn noted. “It’s as if the vaccines played the role of the ‘cool kids’ similar to in the TikTok videos," she said. "Who thought that would ever be possible in the critical eyes of the American public?”

It's an opportunity for pharma companies, and not just those directly involved in making the vaccines. General consumer goodwill, and a potential longer-term industry halo, is an abrupt change after years of dwelling at the bottom of reputation polls.

It should also encourage pharma companies to take a stab at their own expanded social media efforts, industry experts agreed.

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“TikTok and (Instagram) Reels videos personifying information about vaccines or other health topics provide a novel way for companies to help educate and engage people through compelling short-form content," Silje Lier, VP of social strategy at Evoke Kyne, said.

Evoke is encouraging companies to embrace the creator culture and leverage lessons from the content about what resonates with consumers, she said via email.

CMI Media Group senior VP of social media Julie Hurvitz Aliaga knows firsthand the reach of the vaccine brands. Her 5-year-old questioned her during a car ride recently to ask whether her grandparents and family members had gotten “the Moderna.”

“I almost hit the brakes in my car. It just shows that every generation, even down to the very youngest, is hearing these brand names whether from TV or news or within social circles of family,” she said.

For the pharma industry, Aliaga said, it’s a turning point. Consumers are now interested, and will continue to be, in the companies and what they do and who they are. Pharma company clients, in turn, are more interested in enlisting healthcare influencers in social channels.

“It's been a bit of a journey to get pharma clients on board with social," she said. "But now we’re seeing how much of an impact these channels are making for brand recognition—and it can be done. It can be done safely, it can form these conversations and a positive reputation around these brands."