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Got the jab, bought the T-shirt: ‘vaxinistas’ and the rise of pandemic merchandise

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This summer’s trend is not a dish or a dress, but a clean bill of health posted on social media. There’s even a word for it: a “vaxinista” – a combination of “fashionista” and “vaccine” – is someone who has not only had both jabs, but wants to broadcast it via vaccine selfies, cards and even merchandise.

This interest in pharmaceutical merch has now reached a strange new frontier: used pharma memorabilia. On eBay, old mementoes branded with Pfizer and AstraZeneca logos are selling for tens and hundreds of pounds. AstraZeneca paperweights and ballpoint pens are going for £150 and £50 respectively. Bids for a Pfizer lab coat begin at £106, a “pre-loved” Pfizer denim shirt at £100 and a Disneyland Pfizer conference T-shirt at £144. Meanwhile, newspapers from the day the vaccine was announced are selling for more than £40.

One seller of a Pfizer-branded pen told the Guardian he had listed the item “years ago but no one was interested”. This time, about 20 people have been in touch asking to “buy it now” rather than bid on the site. eBay was unable to source actual data “due to the niche nature of themed items”.

“The pandemic has sent us into a frenzy of collecting, but not for obvious reasons,” says Dr Dimitrios Tsivrikos, a consumer and business psychologist at UCL. “People think these items might be valuable in 10 years’ time – but they’re also buying them as a way of taking control of – or even marking – what has been a very difficult situation.”

Merchandise, and in particular slogan tees and pins, has been an expression of its wearers’ values for years. Vaccine merch serves a very particular purpose: at a time of wearing your political values on your sleeve, it gives physical form to a historic moment that would otherwise be forgotten, perhaps save your vaccine sticker. Like punters buying band merchandise after a concert, it’s a way of saying I was there, says Tsivrikos. “People are trying to be a part of the conversation. Wearing something is not just about fashion; it’s a reflection of the situation and, in this instance, even taking a pro-vaccination position.”

It is one way to explain why the pandemic has been tough on retail but a banner year for merchandise, with many key moments translated into shoppable mementoes. From lockdown birthday cards to Fauci caps, in reference to the US immunologist Dr Anthony Fauci, some companies that were forced to close their shops turned to making ephemera to cover overheads, while others mocked up NHS T-shirts for more altruistic reasons.

It also explains why thousands of people have jumped on the bandwagon. The small-business shopping platform Etsy throws up more than 25,000 searches for slogan T-shirts, pins, badges, mugs, bucket hats, wine labels, banners and bumper stickers associated with the vaccine. Some pieces have a more general theme (Culturaticlub’s bucket hats say “vaccinated”). Others stipulate the pharmaceutical company that offered the jab, with a tongue-in-cheek irony.

“It was mostly spawned as a fun way to encourage everyone to get vaccinated,” says Posh and Loom, an Etsy seller , whose unisex T-shirt lists the companies “Moderna, Pfizer and Johnson & Johnson” in a list. The names are not in order of vaccine preference: “They just kind of flowed together to make this cool design,” says a spokesperson. Etsy, which has 10 million users worldwide, was aware of the trend but unable to share UK sales figures because it is relatively new.

The UK began its vaccine campaign with the Pfizer/BioNTech jab in December, before introducing the Oxford AstraZeneca vaccine in January. In April, NIH/Moderna was introduced and this week, Pfizer and BioNTech were authorised to be given to over-12s. “Before the pandemic, not many people had heard of Pfizer,” says one former US Pfizer employee, who wishes to stay anonymous. The so-called entry of pharmaceutical companies into the everyday has been marked by people keen to advertise their immunity status, he says.

It’s a trend not without controversy. Many of the secondhand pieces are likely keepsakes from the sort of events sponsored by US pharmaceutical companies that are attracting more scrutiny following Obamacare’s Sunshine Act, which demanded transparency of financial relationships between healthcare providers and pharmaceutical manufacturers.

According to Slate, the vaccine-specific merch worn by so-called “Pfizerphiles” also risks triggering “vaccine hesitancy” relating to other jabs, at a time when some of the vaccines are suffering a PR crisis due to rare blood clots associated with them. In a 2018 report on vaccine imagery, the Johns Hopkins University found that “images are especially important in communications related to vaccination, an area of public health with proponents and opponents of the advocated behaviour”. These images, it seems, have weight.

Harriet Cosham, a spokesperson for Pfizer in the UK, says that the company “in no way endorses any of the products”. She did acknowledge, though, that this was the first time many people had heard of Pfizer.

In some cases, showing that you have had the vaccine via your T-shirt simply breeds resentment. Robbie, a contractor from London, recently uploaded a “Vaccinated” T-shirt to Instagram after getting his jab. “My girlfriend bought [me one] and obviously it’s just meant to be [funny]. But some people said I was showing off,” he told the Guardian, over Instagram. “I just kind of like that I have something to show from a really shitty year.” Robbie later deleted the post, but says he still wears the T-shirt “from time to time”.

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