What Elvis Can Teach Us About Vaccine Marketing

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SALLY HERSHIPS, HOST: The year was 1956. Polio was running rampant. People were terrified. This disease was coming for kids. Kids were getting paralyzed. Some were dying. The weird thing was there was a vaccine. But there were some problems.

PHILIP GRAHAM: There was a lot of fear around the polio vaccine. And that was one of the big barriers to people adopting it–they were just scared.

HERSHIPS: Philip Graham (ph) is a marketer here in New York City. He says there was this one specific group that was really stubborn, would not get vaccinated–teenagers. So an expert was brought in to help sell the vaccine.


ELVIS PRESLEY: (Singing) You ain’t nothing but a hound dog.

HERSHIPS: Elvis Presley.


PRESLEY: Hey, kids, could I talk to you for about 30 seconds? This is Elvis Presley. If you believe polio is beaten, I ask you to listen.

CARDIFF GARCIA, HOST: Hey, kids. This is THE INDICATOR FROM PLANET MONEY. That’s not Elvis. That’s me, Cardiff Garcia. Welcome back, Sally Herships.

HERSHIPS: Thank you. So the election is over–well, the voting, at least.

GARCIA: The voting is over, yes.

HERSHIPS: In the meantime, we can try to turn our attention to the other piece of big business that has enormous implications for our economy, the coronavirus.

GARCIA: That's right–and more specifically, how you market a product that you really, really need your customer to buy, the vaccine. And it’s especially important right now. More than 9 million people in the US have gotten COVID, and more than 230,000 have died. This pandemic has also just cratered the economy. And a vaccine, of course, would stop all of this and give us a chance to rebuild. But if or when we get a vaccine, we still have to persuade Americans to take it.

HERSHIPS: And that could be really challenging. There are these different polls out there–USA Today, Pew Research. They say that anywhere from about half to two-thirds of Americans say they are unlikely to take a vaccine for reasons like they don’t trust the president or because they don't trust vaccines, period.

GARCIA: And so on today’s show, we look at how you market a vaccine. And also, we look at Elvis again and why the king of rock ‘n’ roll was brought in to help sell the Salk vaccine, the vaccine for polio, and why that strategy worked.


HERSHIPS: So first of all, we should explain what happened. In 1955, Jonas Salk developed a vaccine for polio. Salk’s polio vaccine was safe. It was effective. It felt like a miracle. But there had been a critical mix-up, a mistake, at one lab. Somehow, batches of the vaccine with the live virus were released in a handful of states. Forty thousand kids got sick. Some died. So people were scared. They were not taking the vaccine–the good one, the safe one. The situation feels a little similar today–all this fear and uncertainty in the air.

GARCIA: So the next year, 1956, Elvis Presley was set to appear on “The Ed Sullivan Show.” And he was asked, would he agree to take the vaccine in front of the press? He said, yeah, I’ll do it. And a doctor from the New York City Health Department gave him the shot backstage before the show. And you might say–and I am going to say, Sally–that getting Elvis was a major shot in the arm for the health department.

HERSHIPS: Ba dum bum (ph). Yeah, I think it’s like getting Beyonce to post on Instagram today.

GARCIA: I was going to say The Rock, but yeah, I think Beyonce would work well, too. But Elvis was part of a much bigger strategy. There was a huge campaign called the March of Dimes for which people donated small amounts of money, and teenagers were involved. They did public education. They helped persuade other teens to take the vaccine. It was a lot of work. And ultimately, that work paid off. In 1979, polio was eradicated in the United States.

HERSHIPS: The vaccine for polio saved thousands of lives. It prevented kids from getting paralyzed, and it saved an estimated $180 billion in health care costs, taking care of people who would have gotten sick. Phil Graham says when it comes to marketing a vaccine, a lot of times, it isn’t government figures that make the best salespeople. That’s why bringing in Elvis was such a smart move.

GRAHAM: A lot of the times, it isn’t institutions and probably the government that are going to be seen as the best messenger, you know? Elvis was sort of a trusted figure that people could buy into, and he’s not trying to pull a fast one over on me. He doesn’t have any other motivations except, you know, just doing probably what’s right.

GARCIA: We should note, by the way, that Phil is not just an Elvis history buff or a vaccine history buff. Phil was also one of the first heads of marketing for the Truth campaign, which, in case you don’t remember, was an iconic ad campaign that was launched back in 2000 that was aimed at convincing teenagers not to smoke.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: We’ve got a question. Do you know how many people tobacco kills every day?

HERSHIPS: The campaign was considered a major success. It got about half a million teenagers not to smoke. It saved billions of dollars in health care costs. And the reason we’re talking about it on a show about marketing the coronavirus vaccine is because, ultimately, convincing teenagers to do something they don’t want to do is a lot like persuading reluctant adults to take a vaccine. These are both situations where we need stubborn, reluctant Americans to change their behavior. And when it comes to marketing a coronavirus vaccine, Phil says marketers can learn a lot of lessons from the Truth campaign.

GRAHAM: One is, you know, sometimes carrots work better than sticks, especially when it comes to public health messaging. And you know, by the time the vaccine does come around and is available to everyone, we’ll all have lived with it for about a year. So fear factor messaging isn’t going to work because we've hopefully, you know–touch wood–seen the worst of it. And one of the things we learned on Truth is you–one message isn’t going to get you there. You’re going to need to have multiple messages for multiple audiences.

HERSHIPS: Which means that even Elvis, if he was still around, might not be enough. But Katharine Van Tassel is around. She’s a law professor at Case Western University, and she’s also co-author of the book “Food and Drug Administration” about FDA practices. She says when it comes to marketing, persuading people to take vaccines–it is not enough to have a celebrity. You have to have a trusted messenger.

KATHARINE VAN TASSEL: So for example, perhaps what we could do is, you know, like what they did with polio, have the American Red Cross do the messaging.

GARCIA: The Red Cross is often seen as neutral. It’s not associated with one political party or the other. But again, Katharine says, that won’t do the trick for everyone. She says over the past decade, we’ve had very low enrollment in particular of minority groups in vaccine trials, like Black Americans, Hispanic Americans, Native Americans and also all women.

VAN TASSEL: Looking at lessons learned moving forward, I do think that the Food and Drug Administration should carefully consider ensuring–having a regulation that ensures that vaccine trials in the future really do reflect the demographics of the country.

HERSHIPS: So that way, if you belong to one of those groups and you’re considering taking the vaccine, you would know that it’s been tested in your particular group and it works. But there is yet another vaccine barrier–cost. When the polio vaccine came out back in the 1950s, you needed three doses. They cost up to $5 each, which might not sound like a lot. But when you factor in inflation, that is about $158 in today’s money. And again, we don’t have a proven vaccine yet. We don’t know how much it will cost or how it would be paid for.

GARCIA: But what is clear is that if and hopefully when we do get this elusive vaccine, persuading the Americans who now say they are reluctant to take it–and by the way, that’s about one-third to half of Americans who say they are reluctant–could be really expensive. Phil says, for example, the marketing budget for the Truth campaign was more than a hundred million dollars a year.

HERSHIPS: So Cardiff, you know what would help save the economy, prevent potentially millions of Americans from getting sick?–If you went on THE INDICATOR, just like Elvis, and took the vaccine. What do you think?

GARCIA: I would be happy to do that. Am I as trusted by the broad public as Elvis was? I don’t know. I don’t know. But I’ll do my part.

This episode of THE INDICATOR was produced by Brittany Cronin and fact-checked by Sean Saldana. THE INDICATOR'S editor is Paddy Hirsch, and THE INDICATOR is a production of NPR