Former Presidents Barack Obama, George W. Bush, and Bill Clinton announced earlier this month their intentions to get vaccinated against Covid-19 — potentially on live television — to bolster trust and confidence in the shots among Americans. Following their lead, President-elect Biden said he too would take a vaccine on camera, as did Anthony Fauci, the nation’s most visible virologist. Ivanka Trump also signaled her willingness to get inoculated publicly.
Celebrities and other influential people leveraging their star power to promote a medical product is nothing new in America, not even for vaccines. Elvis Presley famously rolled up his sleeves to receive the polio vaccine on national television in 1956. The quick needle jab into the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll’s arm was among the most memorable moments from the robust teenager-led vaccine campaign. The crusade against the crippling disease helped immunizations skyrocket across the country, and by 1960, yearly cases of polio plummeted by 90% in the U.S. compared with a decade earlier, according to the University of Cambridge.
Now, as the first Covid-19 vaccine has been authorized for emergency use in the U.S., some polls suggest only about half of Americans are willing to get vaccinated against the scourge that is claiming two lives every minute in this country. The challenges of vaccine hesitancy thrust into the spotlight questions about the role, if any, celebrities should play in boosting public support for Covid-19 vaccines: How much can VIPs sway people’s opinions about getting vaccinated, which celebs would be best to tap, and is it ethical for a big name to jump the line to get a vaccine in exchange for an endorsement?
“I think it’s going to be harder to have an Elvis Presley moment with Covid,” said Timothy Caulfield, a health policy professor at the University of Alberta in Canada.
Pop culture in the U.S. is much more fragmented now than in the ’50s, he said, making it tougher to rally the public behind any particular influencer. (Dolly Parton, though, has received wide praise as a sort of Covid-19 vaccine ambassador after it was reported she helped fund the Moderna vaccine.) Caulfield suggested The Rock, Tom Hanks, or Beyoncé might make good ambassadors because they are beloved and hold a neutral place in pop culture. He also said a public health campaign that seeks to enlist A-listers should focus on finding celebrities who resonate with particular communities in order to build trust within those groups.
He added that any vaccine campaign using celebrities should aim to create a memorable, shareable, and engaging message that also explains the science of the vaccine and addresses concerns people hold, like how quickly it was developed. That means developing strategies that connect with people of different age groups that reach them where they are, like on Twitter, Facebook, and TikTok.
For a good chunk of people, they won’t get a vaccine and there will be no changing their minds. Some may dabble in conspiracy theories and claim that celebrities purporting to get a vaccine are actually getting placebos and tricking the masses, as some people claimed on social media after the former presidents made their announcement. Caulfield said public health officials should not focus their energy on this subset of people — who accounted for 1 in 4 of those polled this month by the Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research — and instead look towards those who are on the fence about getting vaccinated. Some 27% of Americans fall into the “not sure” category, the poll found.
Caulfield, who has spent much of his time debunking celebrity vaccine myths, advises public health officials to take a page out of the anti-vaxx movement’s playbook. Jenny McCarthy, an actress and anti-vaccine advocate, was successful at perpetuating the falsehood that vaccines cause autism, he said, because she was able to center the story around her autistic son and resonate her struggles as a parent with other parents.
“They use these powerful anecdotes in order to push misinformation,” said Caulfield. “We’ve got to flip that on its head and start using narratives and creative communication strategies to get across the good stuff.”
A celebrity who lost a loved one to the disease and understands the grief that comes with mourning during a pandemic could make for a potent partner in helping the public understand the altruism in getting vaccinated and how it protects their loved ones. Such a message could connect with people on the fence, he said.
Steven Hoffman, a professor of global health, law and political science at York University in Toronto, said if public health officials can partner with a variety of celebrities, such as former politicians, religious leaders, movie stars, singers, and athletes, it could be a powerful way of normalizing and encouraging the use of the Covid-19 vaccine. But he warned that careful vetting is key.
“Sometimes it can present a risk, if one chooses the wrong celebrity,” he said, “or a celebrity who might have a tendency to veer off message or who might be open to mixing gobbledygook with science.”
Other experts question whether celebrities acting as ambassadors for the Covid-19 vaccines could budge the needle on alleviating people’s fears. It’s one thing for celebrities like Gwyneth Paltrow to promote unproven and potentially harmful health products, but quite another to overcome entrenched ideas about vaccines; in fact, research into the influence of celebrities on creating anti-vaccine sentiment far eclipses research on celebrities promoting vaccine use.
“If I say celebrities will help, do I know that’s really true? I don’t. I think it’s true, but I don’t really know,” said Arthur Caplan, a bioethicist at New York University. “We spent a ton of money making these vaccines, but we didn’t spend anything on the social science about how to persuade people to take them.”
A small study in Indonesia published earlier this year offers some support for the idea of using celebrity ambassadors: It recruited actors, pop stars, television personalities, and motivational speakers to tweet or retweet vaccine endorsements as a part of a nationwide Twitter immunization campaign. It found that vaccine tweets celebrities wrote themselves garnered much more attention than tweets written by someone else and posted from the celebrity’s account. The researchers concluded that celebrities could be effective partners for vaccine campaigns, especially when they’re just acting like themselves.
Other research has shown that celebrities can inspire people to take other actions to prevent illness: In what’s become known as the “Angelina Jolie effect,” many women followed the movie star’s lead after she disclosed in a New York Times op-ed in 2013 that she had a double mastectomy after learning she carried a BRCA1 mutation that put her at high risk for cancer. And researchers also documented the “Katie Couric effect” — an increase in the number of people who underwent colonoscopies after the news anchor’s televised procedure.
Vaccine hesitancy is of great concern in communities of color, especially Black communities that have a long legacy of mistrust of medical research due to historical and present-day racial injustices. Only 24% of Black adults would get a Covid-19 vaccine, and some 37% are not sure, according to the AP-NORC poll.
Malika Fair, senior director of health equity partnerships and programs for the Association of American Medical Colleges, is skeptical celebrity endorsements would appreciably change those numbers. “I don’t think it matters who is taking the vaccine,” she said. “I do not think that it’s going to remove the hesitancy and the mistrust of the medical system, of the public health system, of politicians around the vaccine.”
One reason, she said, is that celebrities have access to the greatest medical care in case something goes wrong. “People are not just thinking about what happens on day one. They’re thinking, what happens a month from now? What happens a year from now? And what if I have a horrible reaction and I don’t have backup?” Fair said. Faith leaders and local physicians would likely have more success in building community confidence in Covid-19 vaccines, she added.
Thomas LaVeist, dean of the Tulane University School of Public Health and Tropical Medicine, echoed those sentiments. But he added that some athletes like Serena Williams and LeBron James, who are seen as trusted voices within many Black communities, are good examples of celebrities that could potentially lend credibility to the Covid-19 vaccines.
“I don’t think that there’s any one messenger, and I don’t know who would be the Elvis Presley of today,” he said. “I think you need ‘Elvi,’ or multiple Elvises, to reach the population.”
There are also ethical considerations that need to be taken into account if celebrities are used to promote the vaccine. Under no circumstances should they jump the priority line to get vaccinated, said Lawrence Gostin, professor of global health law at Georgetown University. That would mean that during the early months of the vaccine rollout, any PR campaign should not attempt to televise athletes and young, healthy celebrities getting a vaccine out of turn. Instead, they should set their sights on partnering with celebrities who fall into those groups designated as high-risk. Obama and spokespersons for Bush and Clinton have said the former presidents would receive their vaccinations only within their priority groups, according to CNN.
President Trump, who will be a former president for much of the vaccine rollout, will play a pivotal role in whether or not the vaccination efforts are successful, said LaVeist.
Doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine will be offered to Trump and other White House officials beginning Monday, according to Reuters. Though it is unclear whether he will try to have an “Elvis moment” and get vaccinated on live television when he does get the shot, according to People Magazine, Trump could be a useful vaccine ambassador if he stressed to his supporters to get vaccinated, said LaVeist.
“There are a lot of people that have followed him down the path of not wearing masks, not taking this pandemic seriously, and putting themselves and their communities at risk,” said LaVeist. “I think a lot of those people, he can turn around. He can reach people who I don’t know could be reached by anyone else.”