Marketers step up flu-shot efforts amid unsettling anti-COVID vaccine campaigns
Amid a global pandemic in which consumer uncertainty has been exacerbated by anti-vaccine misinformation campaigns, marketers in the health care sector are scrambling to make sure consumers have the facts about flu shots ahead of the illness’s peak season.
With greater emphasis placed on the routine vaccine this year, retailers are taking an all-hands-on-deck approach to get the message out about the flu season, which peaks from December to February each winter, but can begin as early as October.
CVS and Walgreens launched their campaigns earlier than ever, both starting marketing pushes as early as mid-August. CVS kicked things off with special flu-shot promotions starting on Aug. 18, and Walgreens followed with a 30-second TV spot.
“We launched our flu-shot campaign earlier than previous years to educate on the importance of reducing community spread of flu and the burden on the health care system during the COVID-19 pandemic,” Walgreens’ chief marketing officer Patrick McLean told Ad Age at the time.
Walgreens’ initial commercial was part of its “Defend Your Crew Against the Flu” campaign, created by WPP, which uses the red post-inoculation bandages as “badges of honor” for consumers.
“Getting people to have the flu vaccine is going to save lives and create a healthier community,” says Doug Sweeny, the chief marketing officer of One Medical, a San Francisco-based primary care provider that offers its services to members via an annual fee-based subscription model.
To counter anti-vaxxers’ unscientific “scare tactic” offensives, Sweeny says he has had to push for public education on the issue of vaccines, both for COVID-19 and the common flu. To do so, he helped launch a campaign for One Medical called “Vote No on Flu” that taps into Americans’ sense of civic duty, employing everything from yard signs to mock campaign buttons.
Like Walgreens’ ads, One Medical positions the flu shot as something consumers can be openly proud of getting, rather than the mundane yearly task it usually is. Experts and retailers agree that encouraging more Americans to get vaccinated against the flu early—months ahead of the normal timeline—may help mitigate any strain on resources brought on by a rush for the shot later this year.
“[Vote No on Flu] takes all the cues of a classic political campaign, and it’s our duty as citizens to get behind this,” says Sweeny, who formerly held chief marketer roles with brands including Google Nest and Levi’s—consumer goods brands that he has used to inform One Medical’s marketing philosophy.
“We’ve taken a lot of the approaches from the consumer marketing playbooks and applied them to a health care model,” he adds, calling One Medical a “disruptor” due to the emphasis it puts on its customer experience.
Due to COVID-19, One Medical’s marketing approach was forced to shift dramatically. With the onset of the pandemic, primary care doctor visits and standard check-ups declined by more than 50% from year-over-year norms, while the company simultaneously put its focus on large-scale, no-cost coronavirus testing.
Signing agreements with cities from San Francisco to New York to conduct their COVID-19 screenings, One Medical notified its out-of-home, digital and radio partners that it was about to effectively “shut off marketing”—a move that paradoxically earned it heaps of earned media exposure.
More than half a year since the pandemic became severe in the U.S., the country is still regularly topping 50,000 new cases per day—more than it did on any single day in the first three months of the pandemic—and the volume of coronavirus tests One Medical processes has hardly slowed.
The creation and efficacy of a potential coronavirus vaccine became deeply intertwined with politics over the summer, as contradictory claims from the Trump administration, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and top U.S. scientists fueled public concerns that a COVID-19 shot might be prematurely rushed to market.
Public trust is now divided on the subject, with just 51% of U.S. adults saying they’d probably or definitely get inoculated if such a vaccine was available to them today, versus 49% of respondents who said they probably or definitely would not, according to a Pew Research Center survey conducted last month.
That is down sharply from earlier Pew polling in May that found 72% of Americans were then in favor of receiving the shot.
Pew’s September study also suggested that 77% of Americans think it’s at least somewhat likely a coronavirus vaccine will be approved before its safety is fully understood—despite nine major U.S. pharmaceutical firms, including Moderna, Johnson & Johnson and Pfizer, signing a safety pledge to abide by “high ethical standards and sound scientific principles” in the fight against COVID-19.
With this year’s flu season looming, marketers in the health care space are grappling with a host of new challenges brought by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, not the least of which is mounting, largely partisan suspicion of the disease itself.
On Oct. 13, one day after Facebook announced it would finally be removing Holocaust denial content, the social media giant took a stand against anti-vaxxers by banning all advertising that discourages people from getting vaccinated.
In a blog post titled “Supporting Public Health Experts’ Vaccine Efforts,” Facebook announced it would begin prohibiting ads that could harm public health efforts while directing users to information on how to get their seasonal flu shot. That includes utilizing its Preventative Health Tool, which gives users health recommendations and resources.
However, the company added, “Ads that advocate for or against legislation or government policies around vaccines—including a COVID-19 vaccine—are still allowed” on the site as long as they’re accompanied by a “paid for by” label.
“I applaud that they’re addressing the misinformation,” says Sweeny, who believes that it’s important for highly influential companies such as Facebook and Google—names that consumers wouldn’t typically associate with medical care—to use their reach for the good of public health, including for the distribution of flu shots.