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Covid vaccine ads aim to influence without alienating people

Philip Oltermann in Berlin, Jon Henley in Paris and Tom Phillips in Rio de Janeiro
·4-min read
<span>Photograph: NHS England/PA</span>
Photograph: NHS England/PA

In England, the NHS signed up Elton John and Michael Caine for a lighthearted social media campaign aiming to convince the public that Covid vaccines are safe and effective. In Germany, a more sober public information campaign has been led by a virologist and health workers. And in France and elsewhere there have been no mass campaigns aimed at driving up vaccine acceptance.

Related: Fear of missing out boosting global acceptance of Covid jab, survey suggests

Government attempts to drive up vaccine acceptance will come under increasing scrutiny in the coming months as more jabs are made available. Public health experts say they have to walk a fine line between boosting trust and not being seen to force the jab on the public.

Germany’s campaign, called Germany Pulls Up Its Sleeves, has run across radio, regional newspapers and billboard posters. At a time when the public is being urged to stay at home and avoid commuting, the health ministry chose to spend more than half of its €25m campaign budget on outdoor advertising.

A new campaign aimed at spreading confidence among younger people is due to launch when the vaccine becomes more widely available.

In France there has been no major mass information campaign. Instead, the prime minister, Jean Castex, the health minister, Olivier Véran, and the country’s “Monsieur Vaccin”, Prof Alain Fischer, who is overseeing the programme, give weekly televised press conferences to update on progress and announce when different groups will be eligible for a shot.

In the US, the federal government is holding off on a nationwide push to raise awareness until vaccine supply increases, and is instead focusing its efforts on vaccine-hesitant minority communities.

“When it comes to shifting attitudes to vaccines, it is crucial to distinguish between public information campaigns that seek to educate the public and those that seek to persuade them,” said Philipp Schmid, a behavioural scientist researching vaccine scepticism at the University of Erfurt.

“In Germany at least, the latter would risk a backlash. But if you don’t proactively tackle the problem at all, you end up playing catch-up with the anti-vaxxers. In a way, governments have to work on a parallel vaccine rollout – immunising the public against science denial.”

Schmid singled out the UK’s public awareness campaign for praise: “It has been more bottom-up than the effort we have seen in Germany so far, and more proactive in addressing ethnic minorities.”

Noel Brewer, a professor in health behaviour at the University of North Carolina, said the UK had learned a lot from the controversy in the late 1990s surrounding Andrew Wakefield’s discredited study linking the MMR vaccine to autism. “It was handled badly at the time but has led to a highly integrated vaccine campaign that is unique in the world,” Brewer said.

Where governments have remained inactive or even sowed distrust in vaccines, other parties have had to take the task of spreading awareness into their own hands.

Brazil’s far-right president, Jair Bolsonaro, has repeatedly undermined vaccination, claiming he would not be vaccinated himself and warning that the Pfizer shot might turn recipients into crocodiles. When Brazil administered its first shot on 17 January, it was the governor of São Paulo, not Bolsonaro, who oversaw the launch ceremony.

In response to government inaction and the president’s anti-science stance, two civil society campaigns have emerged to champion vaccination. One initiative, Unidos pela Vacina (United for Vaccines), has been set up by Brazil’s richest woman, Luiza Trajano, a billionaire retailer whom some analysts tip as a potential future contender for the presidency.

“Our goal is to get all Brazilians vaccinated by September this year,” Trajano said in a video launching the initiative in early February. “We don’t discuss politics. We’re not seeking to attribute blame. What we’re talking about is how to get a vaccine to every person in our country … For every minute that is wasted hundreds of lives are lost in this battle.”

Another campaign is led by Brazilian newspapers and broadcasters. Vacina, sim! (Yes to Vaccination) has enlisted prominent actors, journalists, thinkers and doctors including Lázaro Ramos, Fernanda Montenegro, Aline Midlej, Djamila Ribeiro and Drauzio Varella.