When the House Energy & Commerce subcommittee meets on Wednesday for an oversight hearing titled “A Shot At Normalcy: Building Covid-19 Vaccine Confidence,” one of the witnesses will be none other than Nick Offerman, identified as an “actor and woodworker.”
The former Parks & Recreation star, who played Libertarian Ron Swanson, will have a unique perspective on reaching the vaccine resistant.
“Ignorance is an area in which I can claim some authority, and it is from that perch I would like to communicate why it’s extremely important that we all get vaccinated,” Offerman plans to say, according to prepared remarks, which otherwise are geared to his experience during the Covid-19 crisis.
It underscores a bit of a new front breaking through the media and misinformation clutter to reach the vaccine hesitant.
When Keegan-Michael Key holsted Saturday Night Live this month, the show opened with a satirical take on mask guidance and, in another skit, put vaccine messaging to sexually suggestive rap.
The White House has stressed that its focus has been centered not on celebrities but a Covid-19 “community corps” — a network of community organizations, local leaders and others — to boost confidence. White House spokeswoman Jen Psaki said this month that “we can’t become so dependent on having it be only the voice of the president or even famous people” as “the ones who will magically turn the switch to increase confidence.”
“If your neighbor says, ‘I got the vaccine. I had a little bit of a headache, but I feel pretty good, and now I’m vaccinated. Now I can go have dinner outside and, you know, go to a restaurant.’ That’s going to be more impactful than seeing a television ad, and that’s where we’re putting our resources,” she said.
Still, that doesn’t mean that the Biden administration is avoiding pop culture altogether.
The Biden team recently set YouTube stars for a Q&A with the president and Dr. Anthony Fauci, while the Department of Health and Human Services tapped Eva Longoria and Jennifer Garner to do an Instagram Live conversation with Fauci and Centers for Disease Control director Rochelle Walensky. Vice President Kamala Harris hosted a virtual gathering of figures including Joe Jonas and Kim Kardashian.
Yet it’s one thing to promote vaccines in social media posts; it’s another to have a health message featured as part of a comedy routine — or a dramatic story, for that matter — and to make it break through.
An often-cited example is then-President Barack Obama’s 2014 interview with Zach Galifianakis’ satirical Between Two Ferns, a video that went viral and was credited with boosting traffic to the Affordable Care Act enrollment website.
David Litt, speechwriter in the Obama White House, penned the president’s 2015 White House Correspondents’ Dinner bit that featured Key’s Luther the Anger Translator. He says that SNL was a “pretty good explainer video of how new mark requirements work, in a way that people would watch if they were not following” it on the news.
The Between Two Ferns video, Litt said, “pushed the envelope of what it is that an entertainer can do, not necessarily to change minds, but what it is they can do to give them information they didn’t already have.”
The comedy segments “have to be entertaining, but they are talking about things that matter,” Litt said. The idea is that something funny can break through when just about everything gets politicized, he added.
Producer and manager Eric Ortner, who during the Obama years co-chaired the White House’s Entertainment Advisory Council, which coordinated industry messaging around ACA, said that a difference with some of the vaccine messaging is that comedy creators are taking it upon themselves to get to word out about public health, as was the case with SNL. Litt said that it’s relying on a softer sell — and the messenger is “sort of in the passenger seat and not the drivers seat,” i.e. they haven’t been officially enlisted to participate.
Another recent example was Jimmy Kimmel, who in 2017 used his monologue to make the case for saving Obamacare amid a Republican effort to gut it. He sprinkled humor into a serious pitch to save the healthcare law.
Rene Najera, an epidemiologist and editor of the College of Physicians’ History of Vaccines website, said it is hard to quantify the effect of such messaging, particularly since there already is an overwhelming degree of vaccine awareness.
Celebrities, he said, can “plant the seeds” by pointing to the benefits of getting the shots. But it also probably takes something more to convince a vaccine-hesitant viewer to get the shot, like that person’s peers. If that viewer is “on island of anti-vaccine people, then it will have less impact than if they were surrounded by people who are pro-vaccine,” he said.
The challenge now is reaching vaccine-hesitant people who are surrounded by doubters. That was a rationale behind the White House efforts to reach Gen Z-ers with the YouTube stars.
When it comes to incorporating vaccines into comedy skits and storylines, there is a risk, Najera said. “It is a fine line to walk — it can be effective but it also can indirectly backfire,” he said.
Najera added, “When it comes to comedy, it doesn’t mean you can make fun of serious consequences of an infectious disease.”
He points to an episode of The Brady Bunch in which the Brady kids get the measles. But the episode treated it as no big deal and raised doubts that vaccines are even needed. It’s even been used by anti-vax activists to make their case.
“On other hand is the risk of alienating people you want to reach,” Najera said, as when beliefs are mocked, chances are people will become even more strident in holding on to those beliefs.
The SNL opener, he said, made fun of the confusion when the Centers for Disease Control lifted mask mandates. Later in the show, Key and Cecily Strong played TGI Fridays singers who crooned birthday songs tied to the vaccine.
Najera said that the more beneficial message from the sketches was that “getting vaccinated comes with benefits for all of us.”
“I hope that is the one that stuck,” he said.
Ho Phi Huynh, associate professor of psychology at Texas A&M, said via email that there might be benefits to a subtler soft sell. “Some of the most recent research looking at vaccines and masks seem to suggest that psychological reactance (people reacting negatively when they feel like they’re forced into a behavior and their sense of freedom and autonomy are taken away) really prevents people from engaging in these health/preventative behaviors,” he said. “So in that sense, these shows couple entertainment with health messaging and it doesn’t come off as so ‘in your face.’ And that in of itself might make it effective.”
Throughout the pandemic, there has been some coordination in conveying messages in narrative programming. Hollywood Health & Society at USC Annenberg’s Norman Lear Center has been hosting weekly panels with the Writers Guild of America during the Covid-19 crisis for informational sessions on the virus, with the goal that if they incorporate storylines in their shows, what is said and depicted is accurate.
Such shows as Grey’s Anatomy, Chicago Med and New Amsterdam have featured Covid-19 storylines. Kate Folb, director of the group, predicted that shows also will feature vaccine storylines in the coming months, but she cannot reveal which ones because of non-disclosure agreements.
Folb said that the “whole reason we exist” is that “entertainment storytelling can be extremely effective” in conveying information and even shifting attitudes, with some research to back it up. She cited an episode of Madam Secretary a few years ago, which also had to do with measles and vaccine hesitancy. In the episode, the Secretary of State’s press rep comes back from a cruise with her daughter but has been exposed to a measles outbreak. But in contrast to The Brady Bunch episode, the daughter’s unvaccinated friend suffers serious consequences after contracting measles.
Hollywood Health & Society has studied how best to reach people from different political perspectives without dismissing the concerns they have about the vaccine. They already have studied what helps convince people to wear masks, and one of the things they learned had some effectiveness was presenting it as an issue of protecting other family members, or “if you don’t want to do it for yourself, you may want to do it for someone you love,” Folb said. They even developed a slogan: “Be a Protector.”
Offerman told MSNBC’s Mehdi Hasan this week that he thinks the topic of vaccinations would have made for a good Parks & Rec episode. Although Ron Swanson would have scoffed at a vaccine, he would eventually come around after listening to his wife.
Offerman said, “Once a good guy sees that he’s taking care of others and that it’s for the common good, of course he would get the damn vaccine.”
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