Golden Globes Flu Shot Stunt "Not How We Vaccinate People," Says Expert

The well-intentioned public health stunt gets mixed reviews. 

The Golden Globes chugged away according to schedule when all of the sudden, hosts Andy Samberg and the history-making Sandra Oh announced a gift for the audience. Those who were expecting pizza, like last year, were probably disappointed. But this year a fortunate few attendees walked away with something far more valuable: a flu shot.

With LMFAO’s ubiquitous hit “Shots” as their soundtrack, a flood of white coat-clad individuals, including comedy writer Bowen Yang, began administering flu shots to the audience.

As far using flashy public events to showcase the importance of vaccines goes, Daniel Salmon, Ph.D., of Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health’s Institute of Vaccine Safety tells Inverse that the PR folks behind this move had their hearts in the right place. After all, given Hollywood’s past brushes with vaccine misinformation, the public health message was probably warranted this time around. However, Salmon thinks there was a thing or two they could have done better from a public health standpoint.

“As a researcher, one could try to do some sort of study to measure that through data, so really, all you’re going to get is conjecture,” he tells Inverse. “I had mixed reactions.”

The Good Parts

Last night, 18.6 million viewers watched a handful celebrities and get flu vaccines on live television. The power of that can’t be discounted, especially given the influence celebrities have (for better or worse) on how the public perceives science. Take, for example, Kyrie Irving’s flat-earth speculation, which flourished in middle school classrooms, or Steph Curry’s moon-landing conspiracy theory — which Curry, fortunately, quickly retracted after NASA publicly got involved.

“A part of me says, ‘Well, maybe this helps the social norm, where people see vaccination as something that’s done routinely,’ and ‘Hey look, people are vaccinating and celebrities are vaccinating,’” Salmon says. “You know, what celebrities do certainly impacts social norms in this country. So maybe it has a potential positive effects to show that there are social norms around the flu vaccine.”

Simply showing these high-profile individuals getting flu vaccines could go a long way to helping make vaccination even more culturally accepted than it already is, although the horrified reactions of some celebrities like Keith Urban might undercut that effect a bit. Historically, adds Salmon, cultural shifts have been the hallmarks of successful public health campaigns. Smoking, for example, is at a record low among teens after years of PSAs (though vaping is filling that void fast.)

The Bad Parts

Still, the campaign could’ve been better. Salmon is particularly unimpressed by the moment when the hosts called in their volunteers, ready to make their surprise entrance. “These guys in white coats come out and start walking around and shooting people up. That’s not how we vaccinate people. Even in a mass vaccination campaign, it’s more organized,” says Salmon.

He also wasn’t a fan of the moment when Samberg added: “If you are an anti-vaxxer, just put a napkin on — perhaps over — your head, and we will skip you.” Though entertaining, that callout spurned a tweet storm from the bonafide anti-vaxxer crowd (many of whom took this advice literally). Those jabs, he says, aren’t helpful in encouraging people to educate themselves about vaccines.

“I think that leads to this dichotomy of pro-vaccine versus anti-vaccine. I think that’s really a false dichotomy. Very few people are really anti-vaccine. Maybe one percent or two percent of people are ideologically opposed to vaccines but there’s lots of people that are hesitant,” he says.

There’s ongoing research on the kinds of interventions that could help convince people who are on the fence about the safety and efficacy of vaccines, which runs counter to previous studies indicating that there’s no universally accepted way to influence people’s decisions. Tools like informational websites mediated by experts have previously shown some potential, but individual anecdotes about the life-saving potential of vaccines was famously ineffective. As a new avenue of attack, Salmon is developing an app that’s currently in a clinical trial. He hopes it will give people a platform to ask questions about vaccines and receive personalized answers via video.

So far, the Golden Globes approach to vaccine promotion has gotten mixed results, ranging from a “WTF” from Rolling Stone to praise from the Royal Society of Tropical Medicine. Until there’s more information about what actually gets people to take the steps to get themselves vaccinated, says Salmon, it’s worth investigating all options. The field will have to evolve and adapt to combat misinformation as it arises — even if it means embracing an LMFAO soundtrack.