Perspective: Stick It to Me

Six decades ago, vaccines were considered a miracle. Today, they still are—but that hasn't made them any easier to advertise

If you settled down at the kitchen table with the Saturday Evening Post in 1947, there’s a good chance the ad at right would have sent chills down your spine. It wasn’t because of the close-up shots of the purple-dyed microscope slides, nor the odd picture of the man in the face mask stabbing chicken eggs with a syringe. Instead, your shivers came from reading the ad’s first paragraph. Those words would have brought you back to your childhood—the year 1918, the year that 40 million people (very possibly your brother or sister, a parent or a neighbor) died within hours of contracting the Spanish Flu. It was one of the most terrifying epidemics of the 20th century.

Today, of course, you can pretty much save yourself. All it takes is a flu shot, and last year 111 million Americans (about 36 percent) got one—many by simply walking into the local Rite Aid or Walmart and rolling up a sleeve. But while receiving a vaccine may be easy, marketing one is not. Six decades ago, the task lay in merely familiarizing consumers; today, it’s about coaxing them out of their apathy and fear.

When the Rexall Drug Co. ran its postwar ad, the flu vaccine was literally brand new. The U.S. Army Surgeon General had worked throughout World War II on a reliable preparation, and all 7 million troops had their shots by 1946. The general public was eligible for theirs immediately afterwards—but Rexall had a problem: With the exception of veterans, the public didn’t even know what an immunization was.

“People needed to be educated about what vaccines did and how they worked,” observed John Mack, founder of the Pharma Marketing Blog. Rexall made some shrewd decisions to this end. The company headlined the entire ad as a message from “your doctor.” The microscope slide photos added a necessary dose of scientific authenticity. The text did the heavy lifting, evoking the terror of the 1918 flu and then explaining how a shot could protect you. (“Its work is preventative,” the copy reads.)

Today, though it boasts a panoply of vaccines in its arsenal (not just the flu), GlaxoSmithKline faces marketing hurdles much like Rexall did—though the challenges are different. Owing to oft-exaggerated side effects and studies that purportedly link vaccines to various health conditions, much of the public no longer trusts what it’s been told about getting immunized. “People are a lot more suspicious than they were in 1947 when they were easily convinced by some scientific mumbo jumbo,” Mack said.

But will some explanatory text and stock shots of healthy families change their minds? Probably not. A recent study indicated that nearly a third of Americans never get a shot—of whom 41 percent claim they “just don’t get the flu.” That belief is a fallacy, just as it was in 1947. But back then, with memories of the 1918 epidemic still fresh, Americans were more willing to roll up their sleeves just in case.