Fighting Vaccine Skepticism Begins with Public Trust. At This Scale, That Takes a Movement.

Global deaths from the coronavirus pandemic crossed 3 million on April 17, 2021. As reported in the White House press briefing on April 14, more than 122 million Americans have received at least one shot, and more than 75 million Americans are fully vaccinated. But a recent NPR/Marist poll found that one in four Americans said they would refuse the coronavirus vaccine outright if it were offered.

The breadth of public skepticism is just beginning to manifest in the daily count of successful vaccinations. These challenges would have been mitigated with a well coordinated public education campaign and PSA push starting last fall. In science, marketing matters.

Understanding how and when we might reach the 80% — or herd immunity — has not been an easy chore. According to Priscilla Chan, Co-Founder and Co-Chief Executive Officer, Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, “We knew vaccine hesitancy was going to come, and there’s different levels of acceptance of the vaccine by gender, by political orientation, by racial background.”

In a recent NPR article, Samuel Scarpino, who models the coronavirus outbreak at Northeastern University, said, “What most of us want is a safe return to something that looks more normal. That to me means 80% to 85%, probably, vaccinated. If we’re below 60% to 70% vaccination for COVID when we enter the fall respiratory season, that could easily tip us into an emergency situation.”

The vaccination skepticism that exists in the U.S. today is an unfortunate, but well-framed example of poor public education and what happens when marketing is left behind in our science efforts. Think about the challenges we face currently: climate change, or the fight for equal rights and social justice. Think about the sheer enormity and scale of the work required to overcome poverty, food insecurity, and the growing threat of disease.

Building public trust and buy-in is an undeniably important part of each solution. As I watched the vaccine roll out last December, I wondered where the PSAs were. Where was the centralized campaign with a clear, simple, direct call-to-action — the disruptive marketing, the arresting images and headline that stops me cold, the one with broad distribution that is championed by the largest companies in the U.S., by local and national nonprofits and civic organizations, and supported through space and air time contributed by media companies?

It wasn’t there.

Advertisers took 57 minutes over the course of three hours to hawk their wares at a total cost of $545 million during Super Bowl LV this past February. But when it comes to preserving lives the best we can muster is media blitz of appearances by science experts like Dr. Fauci, and a disconnected array of local PSA spots.

We have tackled these issues directly, through science and research, and through public policy. But we have failed to lay a proper foundation by involving the public — and that can make for a big problem. Marketing can change perceptions. It can stimulate a change in behavior, and it can inspire action. Even a cause is a brand, and this one is the most important of all. We must create awareness for it. We must communicate the case for supporting it. We must engage the public in what the science is telling us, and in the pursuit of the truth and answers.

Without broad public consensus, this work will always be a challenge. How desirable would it be to enlighten and educate a vast part US population to join in the solution? How much more helpful to have a groundswell of support in the search for the answers? If the desired outcome is herd immunity, it would seem myopic to focus only on the science without building the consensus. In many cases, the storytelling trails the science; the marketing gets left behind.

The awareness created by movements like Black Lives Matter, or Stop Asian Hate are great examples of progress. Last summer The New York Times called Black Lives Matter the largest movement in U.S. history. Leaders of other nonprofits — those searching for the cure for a disease, addressing our most concerning social issues, or the environmental organizations that are aiming to mitigate or even prevent climate change, or fight poverty and food insecurity — should all take note.

Creating a movement isn’t easy, but in some instances, a successful level of public trust and advocacy is everything. In the case of COVID-19 vaccinations, it will be as important as life itself.

Dwayne Flinchum, President of ScientificBrands, has led the strategy for brand, marketing and communications engagements on behalf of renowned organizations.