Step forward, our new vaccine advocates

Do we need famous people to convey information about Covid-19 vaccines?

Now that we are forming an orderly queue for the Covid-19 vaccines, picture these two advertisements to persuade us of their value.

In one, popular footballer Marcus Rashford (pictured, top) sits on the side of a hospital bed, rolls up his sleeve, smiles gingerly at a nearby nurse brandishing a needle and then says to camera: "Believe me, not having the Covid-19 vaccine would be the worst own goal ever."

In the other, that same nurse – uniformed, exhausted and unsmiling – stares straight at the camera and says: "Take the vaccine. Because I know what can happen if you don’t."

If you believe the latest leak from the government’s increasingly chaotic, make-it-up-as-we-go-along pandemic media strategists, "sensible" celebrity figures such as Rashford will become central to the national vaccine campaign. Influencer marketing is, they believe, the key to ensuring citizens don’t succumb to the anti-vaxxer paranoia that is set to imperil our return to normality and threaten the government’s Covid-19 programme.

Because if large numbers of people refuse to take their medicine, the restrictions that have so blighted our lives throughout most of 2020 will continue indefinitely as public trust breaks down.

And yet, why does this government think that Rashford is the answer? Perhaps it could turn to Olivia Colman as well, fresh from her imperious performance in The Crown. Or maybe Hugh Laurie can be persuaded to morph back into Gregory House and coldly inform us we’ll die if we don’t get vaccinated.

Or perhaps we need to plumb the depths of Instagram, Facebook, TikTok, Twitter and any other place where social media influencers are paid small fortunes to tell us what to do.

But that won’t work this time. Healthcare is different. This is about saving lives, not flogging consumerables. It’s about societal responsibility, not "likes" and followers. It’s about trust in expertise, not trust in celebrities. It’s about relevance, not fame.

The marketers whom the politicians are no doubt turning to for advice need to be smarter about who’ll influence whom and why – and they need to embrace science.

The public perception of pharmaceutical companies has changed dramatically in 2020 and the incredible feats achieved in providing the world with multiple Covid-19 treatments have transformed their reputations.

They’re no longer thought of as companies that simply treat "sickness" but are now organisations that promote "wellness". The more the public has heard from the industry and understood it, the greater the trust capital that has been built. For instance, the multiple interviews with BioNTech chief executive professor Ugur Sahin were clear, precise, fascinating and inspiring. We don’t need famous people to convey the information and build trust.

Despite the many millions invested in the multiplatform influencers market, people are beginning to see through the celebrity-messaging gimmicks and their perceived shallowness no longer fits with these more serious times. People want authenticity, real evidence and a human quality that perfectly edited mass-media confections lack.

The irony of ultra-fast connectivity is that we feel even more disconnected than we did before the internet governed our lives. According to the World Health Organization, an infodemic – where facts and fiction are at war – means that we no longer trust authority in the way we used to, whether that authority is built on talent, popularity or expertise. 

The past months of coronavirus-inspired isolation have exacerbated this disconnect and led more people to search for "truths" that they don’t believe leaders provide. Hence the exponential rise in paranoia, fake news and conspiracy theories.

Yet, there is a cure for this virus of mistrust: authenticity.

The past two decades have exposed us to so much information, so much highly curated and doctored messaging that we now crave authenticity above all else. We have been willingly seduced and manipulated by star-studded algorithms – and though these will always be essential marketing tools, mass and urgent healthcare and wellness is an entirely different scenario to retail.

To help us navigate this confusion, citizens have a renewed craving for authenticity that directly and honestly appeals to their emotional needs. A realism that chimes with their lives.

There’s nothing wrong with brands using old ways of advertising to persuade us to buy things, but if leaders want to persuade us to do things through aspirational content, a different approach is required. One that revolves around brand ambassadors with real experience and knowledge. One that promotes to the public an experience rather than a product – and surely there is no greater or more valued experience than prolonged life.

A great deal of my work with pharmaceutical and healthcare companies revolves around patient influencers and advocates for certain treatments. They’re not paid to extol the virtues of any product. There’s no need – they are living proof that such treatments and approaches work. They’re alive because of the benefits of certain procedures. There’s no better advertisement than a 10-second clip or tweet of a real person telling you that. They are today’s key opinion leaders. Authentic, trustworthy and knowledgeable.

Doctors, nurses, scientists and their network of Covid-scarred heroes are the people we need to educate, persuade and influence us of the value of injecting our bodies with serums that have been developed in unfeasibly short timespans.

I trust them, their expertise, credibility and values – not the celebrities who are being told what to say and do.

So why won’t the government?

Grant Feller is director of GF Media
Picture: Getty Images

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