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The U.S. Has Failed to Persuade Americans to Get Vaccines. Here’s How It Should Course-Correct

5 minute read
Sid Mohasseb is Adjunct Professor in Dynamic Data-Driven Strategy at the University of Southern California and is former National Strategic Innovation Leader for Strategy at KPMG. He is the author of The Caterpillar’s Edge (2017) and You are not Them (2021)

The U.S. still hasn’t reached a high enough level of vaccination to achieve “herd immunity” because vaccine demand is falling. While only months ago, it was hard to get an appointment, now vaccines are widely available and people just aren’t getting them.

This is a marketing issue: the federal government is failing to penetrate the key demographics that can get us over the finish line. America needs a vaccine chief marketing officer, with a smart marketing strategy, or the pandemic will never end. In fact, it could get worse as reopening continues and mask mandates end.

We are able to sell smartphones, sodas and cars at high prices to almost every American. But we are struggling to give life-saving shots away for free to the same people. That’s a marketing failure that must be corrected.

Read more: Why Men Are Falling Behind in COVID-19 Vaccination

Marketers divide customers into innovators, early adopters, early majority, late majority and laggards. In America, the percentage already vaccinated represent the “early adopters,” plus some who are extremely vulnerable to the virus and need rather than want it. The “late adopters” are not showing any signs of adoption at all. On June 2, we administered 1.1 million vaccine doses, down from a peak of 3.38 million on April 13. Some vaccination centers are having to close due to lack of demand.

The federal government is spending nearly $2 billion to encourage vaccine uptake. That’s more than double Coca-Cola’s U.S. marketing budget. But Coca-Cola has been building a brand for more than a century. COVID-19 vaccines are new and need more, and better, marketing.

There has not been any CMO, creative director or ex-ad agency executive appointed to encourage the vaccine-uptake campaign. Instead, Anthony Fauci has been appearing on news outlets, Kamala Harris has been leading the charge in Black communities, and the Administration even deployed National Institutes of Health director Francis Collins to engage the white, conservative and Christian base.

We wouldn’t all buy an iPhone if the Vice President told us to, and vaccines are no different. The American people do not like “elites,” and at a time when scientists and politicians stand side-by-side, public-health officials like Fauci suffer from the same distrust as politicians: Only 43% of Americans say they would take the vaccine if Dr Fauci or the Centers for Disease Control told them to.

The government should learn from a young advertising executive named Alan Pottasch who, in 1961, when Coke was outselling Pepsi by 6 to 1, advised Pepsi to “stop talking about the product and start talking about the user.” The campaign he built didn’t talk about bubbles and flavor. Instead, it tapped into the desires of the individualistic young people who were forming their identity in the effervescent ‘60s.

The Pepsi Generation campaign was born; Pepsi not only clawed back market share from Coke, they changed the rules of the game. Brands stopped selling customers better features, they started selling their customers better versions of themselves.

Read more: Michael Lewis Found the People Who Should Have Been in Charge During the Pandemic

And herein lies the problem. The American people do not want to be lectured about shots, they want to be inspired about their lives. Humans do not make decisions based on reason and logic (vaccine efficacy rates, incidence of side effects, FDA emergency authorization). They make decisions through a messy lens of gut feelings, emotions and biases.

Where is the emotion? Where is the storytelling? Where is the evocation of patriotism? The vaccine drive is an opportunity for America to take its self-prescribed mantle as “leader of the free world” and apply it to the vaccine. Getting the shot should be about freedom, about strengthening America, about triumphing over the enemy – not about doing what you are told by Harris or Fauci.

Pepsi was able to convince a generation that freedom could be found in an unhealthy drink. Yet the vaccine, which actually grants personal and national freedom, can’t be given away for free? With America’s budget and brains, we can surely do better.

It’s not that all of America is short of ideas — just the federal government. State governments are using vaccine lotteries, paying people to get vaccinated and creating consumer incentives. But that isn’t happening at the national level – and this needs to be a national effort. At the same time, we should be congratulating and validating the early adopters, so they don’t feel that by incentivizing later adopters we are rewarding “bad behavior.”

The government assumed the vaccine would sell itself. It isn’t. It’s time for a course correction.

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