The black truck turned heads as it looped around Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte, during Sunday’s Carolina Panthers game.
“Don’t get vaccinated,” read digital billboards on the vehicle’s side and rear panels. Underneath, the name and website of a business purporting to be a funeral home were spelled out in white lettering, along with a 10-digit phone number.
It turned out to be an elaborate and highly unorthodox campaign to promote the coronavirus vaccines — one that drew applause from local hospital leaders and social media users as it went viral on Twitter, while leaving some experts in vaccine marketing questioning whether any holdouts would be swayed by the stark message.
The web address for the nonexistent Wilmore Funeral Home took users to a landing page that said simply: “Get vaccinated now. If not, see you soon.” It linked to the vaccine registration site for StarMed, a health-care provider in the area.
For more than a day, the people behind the stunt remained a mystery, even to officials at StarMed. The website’s creator was hidden, and the number on the side of the truck led to a third party whose voicemail was, unsurprisingly, full.
On Tuesday morning, a local advertising agency revealed the sign and website were its idea. “It was us. Get vaccinated,” the firm, BooneOakley, wrote in a tweet.
The race to get people immunized against the coronavirus and its fast-moving variants has spawned an array of advertising efforts, most of them centered around gently convincing people of the proven benefits of the vaccines and the promise of ending the pandemic. Vaccine hesitancy remains a top concern for health officials everywhere. Less than 55% of the country is fully vaccinated, according to tracking by The Washington Post, and the number of shots administered daily has hovered below 1 million since early summer.
The public interest advertising group the Ad Council spent months incubating the “It’s Up To You” campaign, focusing on building confidence in the shots and encouraging people to consider the things they missed out on as the virus raged. Some Facebook ads have sought to court hesitant conservatives by promoting the shots as a way to “restore our freedoms.” At the local level, a few health departments have taken a humorous approach — Baltimore recently won praise for cutting through misinformation online with its “ginger ale can’t cure COVID” meme.
In North Carolina, where less than half the population is fully vaccinated, BooneOakley tried a more jarring tactic.
David Oakley, the firm’s president, said the 22-person agency hatched the idea for the fake funeral home while talking about who benefits from unvaccinated people falling ill and dying from COVID-19. Creating a mock business seemed like a provocative way of calling attention to the problem.
“Everything that’s being done right now is pretty straightforward — ‘get the shot,’ ‘get vaccinated today,'” Oakley said in an interview. “It was a different way of going about the message.”
The group decided to point people to StarMed because the health-care provider has been a major force in the region’s vaccine and testing push. Agency executives also appreciated its spunky social media presence, Oakley said.
“We felt like personally this was a cause we believed in,” he said, “and we should use our resources for the common good.”
The billboard truck advertising the mock funeral home did laps around the football stadium downtown during the Panthers game against the New Orleans Saints on Sunday afternoon. Pictures soon proliferated on Twitter, where the campaign was hailed by users who were in on the joke. “This is some God-tier marketing,” one wrote.
Whether it will actually persuade the unvaccinated is another question. Much vaccine promotion in the United States has avoided the type of fear-based advertising commonly used in antismoking campaigns. The shots themselves have become so divisive that some researchers warn such messaging could backfire.
Stacy Wood, a professor at North Carolina State University who studies coronavirus vaccine promotion, said BooneOakley’s campaign was probably too high-pressure to change an unvaccinated person’s mind. If anything, she said, it risks reinforcing their stance.
“In studying how people make choices, marketers have found that when people feel pushed to one particular choice and this pressure is enough that it makes them feel like their actual freedom to choose is being impinged upon,” Wood said. “I can understand that the fake funeral truck stunt was embraced by the vaccinated as the relief of dark humor in a tense situation — it’s an effective joke, but not effective marketing.”
Scott Ratzan, an expert in health communication from City University of New York, voiced similar doubts. “That kind of fear doesn’t move people when they know there are people who have had COVID and haven’t died,” sad Razan, whose research has involved interviewing vaccine-hesitant people across the country.
Oakley said he was well aware the ad would strike a nerve and was glad to take a chance on an unconventional campaign.
“Anything that we can do to get people vaccinated,” he said. “If it gets one person to change their mind, it’s worth every penny.”
StarMed officials welcomed the BooneOakley’s offbeat approach. The company’s chief medical officer, Arin Piramzadian, told the Charlotte Observer he was “100 percent for it” if it saves a single patient’s life.
Chris Dobbins, StarMed’s chief of relations and response, said he found out about BooneOakley’s campaign when he started getting calls inquiring about the truck. Web traffic has since spiked on the company’s vaccine and testing pages, he said, and some people have called in to thank them for encouraging the shots.
“It’s not your typical marketing plan. But sure enough, people looked,” Dobbins said. “If it’s going to educate and motivate people, we’re going to appreciate it.”