The COVID-19 vaccine became a politicized issue long before it was approved by the Food and Drug Administration — a fact that wasn't surprising, given former President Donald Trump's downplaying of the pandemic's gravity and a growing anti-vaccine movement on both sides of the aisle. But how exactly the shots became tangled up in the web of celebrity, and whether that matters, is more difficult to determine.
This week, nearly 30 actors, singers and athletes signed a UNICEF open letter asking specific countries to donate 20 percent of their COVID-19 vaccine doses to those in need by August. Billie Eilish, Priyanka Chopra Jonas, Orlando Bloom and Whoopi Goldberg are just a few of the big names who signed the petition, which also serves as a public display of support for the vaccine in general. "I join other @unicef Ambassadors in calling on wealthy G7 countries to #DonateDosesNow," Bloom wrote on an Instagram Story Tuesday alongside a video from UNICEF.
Other celebrities have been hired to specifically address individuals who are hesitant to get the vaccine, and the celebrities do this often as a part of a sponsored campaign. Black-ish star Anthony Anderson participated in Advil's #AfterMyShot campaign, assuring his followers that, for him, getting vaccinated "was a walk in the park." John Legend teamed up with Walgreens for a similar #ThisIsOurShot campaign that featured the Grammy-award-winning singer in a video montage showing people smiling after getting the shots.
But major companies aren't the only ones tapping into the cult of celebrity. Some state and local health departments have launched their own "vaccine influencer" campaigns, offering money to prominent individuals in specific areas to post about their experience and encourage others to join them. Officials in Cook County, Ill., hired dozens of influencers, including models and business owners in the region, to join their #MyShot campaign; the Oklahoma City-County Health Department did the same.
Given research on the effectiveness of the vaccines thus far, encouraging more people to get the COVID-19 vaccine seems unequivocally good. But Richard Carpiano, professor of public policy and sociology at the University of California, Riverside, says leaning on celebrities and influencers can go both ways. On the one hand, celebrities can be figures whom individuals feel that they know — and want to emulate.
"The extent to which there are people that we respect and that we trust, I think they could [have the power to change behavior]," says Carpiano. "It gets to the more fundamental idea of seeing prominent people [getting vaccinated] or seeing many people getting vaccinated which creates a bit of a norm that makes you think, 'Well, other people are getting it, and I should be doing that too.'"
The fear of missing out, or FOMO as its commonly called, can be an effective way of getting individuals to change their behavior. While it's too soon to know if public figures are having an impact on vaccination, earlier research suggests they might. An October 2020 study published in Plos One analyzed the effects of micro-influencers (individuals with anywhere from 500 to 10,000 followers on social media) sharing positive information about the flu vaccine and directing users to stopflu.org, an information site run by Kaiser Permanente. The influencers featured were those specifically speaking to communities of color, where vaccine hesitancy is typically higher.
In the end, 117 influencers generated nearly 70,000 engagements with the website, leading to "significant increases in positive beliefs about the flu vaccine" and "significant decreases in negative community attitudes toward the vaccine." The authors concluded that the campaigns can be successful. "Influencers can be an ideal tool for health communication if they already identify with a target audience, and their content uses the same language and style of speech that the audience uses," the authors conclude. "In this way, health campaigns can have a look, feel, and sound that will capture an audience’s attention."
Carpiano doesn't disagree. He says that it's plausible that some individuals may be swayed to get vaccinated after seeing an idol of theirs post a picture with a post-vax Band-Aid (which everyone from Christie Brinkley to Sarah Hyland has done) as well as encouraging words about their experience. "Actors and celebrities, they're often relatable people in many respects," says Carpiano.
But at the same, he worries that putting the opinions of nonexperts at the forefront sends a message that celebrity and social media influencers' views on vaccines — no matter how basic — are as valuable as the experts'. "It raises the question: What does it mean in the world if we trust our celebrities more than we trust the person who went to school for that topic?" Carpiano asks.
While he's not opposed to celebrities continuing to be a major part of the vaccination conversation, he says there are ways to do it right. "You people who have podcasts and do other initiatives, like Kristen Bell, where they try to hype scientists and give them attention — which I think is an interesting, engaging approach for science communication," says Carpiano. "They're bringing it back to what we should be paying attention to, which is the people who have to deal with these issues for a living."
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