Media Messaging and Covid Vaccines

“Happiness is the smell of a new car. It’s freedom from fear. It’s a billboard on the side of a road that screams with reassurance that whatever you’re doing is OK. You are OK.”

Don Draper, Mad Men.

In early November 2020, Pfizer announced the results from a Phase III clinical trial of some 43,000 participants. The results suggested a vaccine efficacy rate of more than 90%. For the first time in what felt like a long while, Pfizer delivered reassurance; we will be OK.

It is rare for the general public to engage directly with a pharmaceutical company’s main brand, particularly in the UK where drug benefits and advancements in medicine are shared within clinical papers rather than wide-scale television campaigns.  However, the Covid crisis presented a different touch point whereby those companies who had a vaccine offering, opened a conversation directly with consumers across the world.

Overnight, Astra Zeneca, Moderna and Pfizer became household names in the UK with their particular flavour of vaccine eagerly debated as more performance metrics were released into mainstream media. There was choice but not at the individual consumer level. Sales volumes were secured. National vaccines authorities procured volumes based on the bets a country had placed at the very outset of the pandemic. In the public eye, the perceived quality of a company brand, was intrinsically linked to the performance of its Covid vaccine and with it, their potential to save lives, reassure the public and help create a future free of fear.

In a triumph of science, all of these vaccines worked. They all secured regulatory approval in record time and each was deemed safe. They would keep you out of hospital and stave off death over 95% of the time. They were not, however, equal. The quality of messaging, communication and how facts were shared, is what set each company brand apart.

Pharmaceutical companies are used to submitting trial data across a wide spectrum of age, ethnicity, state of health and other such factors that skew results, but the general public are not used to digesting such data so early on in the process. In designing trials for regulatory approval as well as addressing public health questions, this can result in complexities which undoubtedly impact the messaging around vaccine success and public trust. 

Communication on factors such as delivery of products, cost, headline efficacy figures, supply, supply chains, public health questions, dosage etc. can very quickly confuse – rather than direct – the necessary discourse on efficacy and efficiency of a successful vaccine. Add to this the political wrangling surrounding the acceptability of certain adverse events, contracts, agreements and leadership, and there is a recipe for doing more harm than good to a company’s brand.

A wise man once said: “make it simple, but significant”. In the context of the media messaging around Covid vaccinations, never a truer phrase was spoken.

Devneet Atherton