Elmo Used to Get Children to Beg for Vaccines

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Public health officials have long criticized the use of children’s television advertisements and characters to sell products to kids. Parents are less than thrilled when a young child begs for something they saw on TV. But, with the old adage in mind – if you can’t lick ‘em, join ‘em – public health officials have turned to TV and used Elmo, Sesame Street’s fuzzy red muppet, to get children to beg their parents to get them something unexpected – vaccines.

Elmo visits with the U.S. Surgeon General, Dr. Vivek H. Murthy, to discuss vaccines and encourage kids to get shots. In the two public service announcement videos featuring the duo, the beloved Sesame Street puppet learns about the importance of vaccines as super heroes fighting illness, and relies on a Taylor Swift tune to shake off the shot.

The two spots being released by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) are clearly the latest salvo, albeit a charming one, in the fight over vaccinations. Elmo is blatantly used to get children to beg their parents for vaccines so they will have super heroes ensuring they can keep on playing.

The debate over giving children vaccines resurfaced and grew heated in the recent months after outbreaks of measles and other illnesses were spread as a result of parents choosing to avoid inoculating their children. In California, a recent measles epidemic spread by someone visiting Disneyland affected approximately 130 children.

In the shorter of the videos, the U.S. Surgeon General talks with Elmo about the important of all children being up to date on their vaccinations. Murthy talks about “his job to help everyone stay healthy.” He also cites the responsibility for making sure” all children are protected from easily preventable diseases.”

In the longer spot, the two talk about germs, which make people (and puppets) sick. “Elmo doesn’t like being sick,” the puppet replies. He then explains that he feels bad when he can’t play outside with his friends.

After the muppet gets nervous about shots, but Murthy explains how the antibodies in vaccines work, which Elmo then enthusiastically equates to the “best superheroes ever.” The doctor adds that, by getting the shots ,one never has to miss out on playing with friends.

Even after learning that vaccines are an important, Elmo still needs convincing that the shots are worth the pain. The doctor responds, “Don’t worry, Elmo, it’s just a little pinch. And it’s safe.” Murthy then suggests singing his favorite song as a distraction, so the puppet launches into a charming cover of Swift’s Shake it Off while getting the vaccination shot.

Then, in case the spot viewers have not gotten the political message yet, Elmo says, “That was so easy, why doesn’t everybody get a vaccination?” Then the Surgeon General stares into the camera to look directly at presumably the anti-vaccination crowd, “That’s a good question Elmo, that’s a good question.”

Murthy explains on the HHS Web site that he grew up watching Sesame Street. So he reported that he was thrilled Elmo was willing to help encourage his friends get vaccinated. His posting goes on to point out that vaccines not just protect the recipients, but also the community as a whole from infectious disease. He claims that for American children born from 1994 to 2013, routine vaccinations will prevent approximately 322 million illnesses, 21 million hospitalizations and an estimated 732,000 deaths during their lifetimes.

The Surgeon General concludes his posting by recommending people talk to health care professionals about vaccines. The campaign is political propaganda at its finest and and used Elmo to get children to beg for “super hero” shots and vaccines.

By Dyanne Weiss

ABC News
U.S. Department of Health and Human Services