Buffy the Pertussis Slayer

Sarah Michelle Gellar (aka, Buffy the Vampire Slayer1) is the celebrity ambassador for the Sounds of Pertussis vaccination campaign from the March of Dimes and Sanofi Pasteur. She recently published an editorial at CNN encouraging adults to get their pertussis vaccination in order to protect infants from this potentially fatal disease (aka, whooping cough).

Although we typically associate celebrity medical endorsements with disproven woonackery or dangerous foolishness, that is a bit unfair. We’ve always been able to recruit celebrity spokespeople for important public advocacy campaigns. In 20122, Amanda Peet made a splash for her advocacy in favor of vaccinations as a counter to Jenny McCarthy.

The Sounds of Pertussis campaign has clearly been learning from the successes (vaccination rates are down, infectious disease outbreaks are up) of the enemies of sound medical science, good public health, and social ethics. It is not enough to have all the data, all the evidence, all the plausible theories, all effective treatments on your side. Ancient rhetoricians, working at a time when there was very little ability to “prove” anything3, knew that presentation mattered most of all. The infectious disease advocates4 have no evidence, but they did have rhetoric.

Rhetoric is a tool. It is not good or bad on its own. Its morality is determined by the purpose to which you apply it. Read Sarah Michelle Gellar’s editorial and visit the Sounds of Pertussis site to see how they are using rhetoric to get the maximum effect out of the evidence. The evidence is there. Gellar cites statistics. The Sounds of Pertussis website has a references link to provide reputable, scientific sources for their claims.

Their rhetoric focuses on the individual parent, the individual family, and the individual baby. It is about Sarah Michelle Gellar and her child. It is about you and your baby.

They make getting vaccinated against pertussis part of the process of getting ready for your baby’s arrival, like painting the nursery and putting together the crib. They make getting vaccinated a way grandparents, aunts, uncles, and friends can help care for the new child.

The pictures are of parents and families loving their children. There are no images of huge, scary needles5 on the Sounds of Pertussis site. There is, however, a big ol’ needle at the top of Gellar’s CNN editorial. As I said on Twitter, if I were Sarah Michelle Gellar and Sounds of Pertussis, I would be livid with the CNN editors for undercutting my important message6.

This is representative of one way the mainstream media have consistently undercut messaging about the public health and personal health importance of vaccines. The “go to” imagery – big needles, screaming kids, ominous vials – runs counter to the information provided in the text. Articles by or about infectious disease advocates are not typically paired with pictures of children suffering from measles.

They even deploy fear. Infectious disease advocates have exploited the success of vaccinations in dramatically reducing deaths and suffering from infectious diseases. They have been able to use fear of things like autism to motivate people not to make wise health choices, because a fear of infectious diseases like polio, diphtheria, and rubella had largely disappeared from our society. Sounds of Pertussis brings that fear back honestly with a stark and gut wrenching audio recording of the cough of a child stricken with pertussis. The visceral effect of the sound pairs with the information that pertussis is most deadly to infants too young to be vaccinated to create an emotional drive to get oneself vaccinated, to protect innocents that cannot protect themselves.

It will be interesting to see if Sounds of Pertussis gains cultural traction with this campaign. They have the famous spokesperson. They have a compelling (and fear inducing) hook with the titular sound of pertussis – the dreaded “whoop” of whooping cough. The focus is on adult vaccination, which negates the major, unfounded fears of infectious disease advocates.

But will it work?

1. She has done lots of other things, but, let’s face it, Buffy is inescapable. Coincidentally, while I was writing this, Cruel Intentions was on television, but I doubt “aka, Kathryn Merteuil” would have the same effect.
2. Peet’s advocacy dates back before 2012, but came to more widespread attention then in conjunction with the Shot@Life campaign.
3. The world has been spared (or cruelly denied, depending on one’s perspective) an ancient Rome with smartphone cameras.
4. While I am sure that they might object to this sobriquet, “infectious disease advocate” not only accurately represents the thinking of large swathes of the anti-vaccine movement (the idea that exposure to deadly diseases is good for us, even chicken pox is a killer), but also represents the unspoken core of their message. A vote against vaccination is a vote for infectious disease.
5. The needles often pictured with articles meant to promote vaccination are often much larger than the needles actually used, especially for children. Many images cannot even be defended on the grounds of being accurate.
6. As a counter-example, BoingBoing‘s Xeni Jardin gets it right when she points us to the editorial with just a picture of Sarah Michelle Gellar

Author: Josh Witten


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