You’re already being inundated with flu shot marketing and it’s impacting you in a big way, whether you know it or not. Welcome to the next chapter in my series: The Flip Side of the Flu ShotI want my tribe to understand how they are being influenced, regardless of how you feel about the flu shot. And good news, this new skill will help you think differently about ALL advertisements you’re exposed to going forward, not just in health and wellness.

Oh hi! Have we met yet? Make sure you start with the link above and following along. At the bottom of our kickoff post (in the PS sections), you’ll read a little more about me and my perspective, long before my health coaching days and why in the world we’re talking about marketing on a health and wellness website.

Why Is The Flu Shot Marketed So Heavily?

The answer to this question really depends on what you believe to be the motive behind the CDC, policy makers, and the medical community at large.

And the end of the day, the flu is a big business.  There is a ton of money (billions) being poured into harvesting the vaccine, marketing it, administering it and attending to the complications of it, or the flu itself.

While we’ve been previously conditioned to believe the effectiveness of the vaccine, over the last few years, consumer confidence is now waning and many people are starting to ask really smart questions like:  “why are still still marketing a vaccine so heavily if the majority of people with flu-like symptoms don’t even have the flu to begin with and for those who do have influenza, it’s largely ineffective.”

This post is to highlight how you can be more aware of flu shot advertising and how it influences your decision to get, or to avoid, the flu shot.  We will cover the other questions many people are asking themselves in these upcoming posts.


Puzzling questions that many are asking themselves:

  1. Why are we creating a policy about vaccines before we’ve even tested each ingredient in the flu shot for safety, before we fully understand any number of things like: how they all work with (or against) one another, or before we know both short-term and long-term effects of injection vs ingestion?  Putting policy before science seems like a bad idea (my personal opinion).  Like the National Vaccine Implementation Plan from 2010.
  2. Why is there a significant investment in marketing of a vaccine that is largely untested, is rarely effective and has correlational adverse effects? This CDC presentation is focusing on the marketing plans and programming overhaul that needs to happen to be even more effective at communicating about the flu shot.  In summary, the CDC recognizes that:
    • That the media is noisy. They have to be in more places, more frequently, to be heard.
    • They need to be where there is access to big populations of healthy people and media outlets (large cities)
    • Using medical staff and other perceived “authorities” will gain better buy-in
    • Using influential descriptive words are important
    • Repetition of “bad news” (impending doom) is critical for persuasion
    • Exploiting real people to drive home the message
    • Coupling the problem with the solution in the same conversation

How Marketing “works”

Any good sales and marketing person will tell you that the BEST way to sell something is to tell a story:

  1. Paint an emotionally charged picture of pain
  2. Highlight what will happen if you don’t buy the solution (creating fear…a powerful motivator)
  3. Highlight the benefits (how you’ll feel after the solution)
  4. Present the solution to the pain (identify the product or service)
  5. Incentivize with an offer the customer can’t refuse (discounts, coupons, gifts). *important to note that health care providers cannot offer these things.

Emotions sell. Get people to laugh or cry and you’re likelihood of a sales increases.  Create fear and you’ve got a hook. Your solution becomes the hero, and therefore, it becomes a no-brainer decision to the customer.  Because we’ve conditioned our society to be coupon-crazy and discount-hungry, companies up-sell the flu shot with incentives to push people off the fence – it’s such a good deal now. For the elderly on a fixed income, this is especially appealing.

The pain statements:

  • A list of symptoms
  • A list of complications
  • Impressive statistics
    • Hospitalizations
    • Effectiveness rates
    • Deaths

A list of marketing resources is right here on the CDC website, for instance.  Most influential are the radio and TV ads though. The more senses you can tap into (audio, visual, etc), the more you’ll persuade the public.

The solution: A flu shot.

The incentives. Companies use incentives as a way to motivate people to do something. Often times it benefits the company who is offering the incentive, the most. There are hundreds of ways that retailers, urgent care clinics and employers incentivize consumers to get their flu shot, from ice cream to cash. A few of what you can find online:

While it’s illegal for medical professionals to take a direct bribe from big pharma, there are plenty of loopholes.  For example, Blue Cross/Blue Shield will give your pediatrician $400 for each child in their practice who is fully up to date on their vaccines by age 2. But the practice has to maintain a 63% fully vaccinated rate (including flu vaccines that have been proven to have slim to no efficacy!) or else they won’t receive the payout. If the average pediatrician sees 1,000 children, that’s a $400,000 bonus – quite hard to walk away from.

Pain + Relief + Solution + Incentives = a really good story that no one can resist.

Is Flu Shot Marketing: Good or Bad?

It depends what you might believe about the flu shot.  This is one of the reasons that the entire conversation can be so complex:

  • Camp A: Flu shots are good. Incentives encourage more people to get the vaccine.
  • Camp B: Flu shots are bad. Incentives are a way for the companies to make more money.
  • Camp C: Flu shots are good. I don’t love that companies profit so much off of them.
  • Camp D: Flu shots are bad. Encouraging more people to get the vaccine has bad implications.

Where Flu Shot Marketing Happens

Flu shot marketing is everywhere. Millions of dollars ares spent on advertising and show up…

  • In urgent care clinics
  • At pharmacies and doctor’s offices
  • In the aisles and checkout lines at the grocery store
  • On your receipts
  • On the back of public bathroom doors
  • Across highways
  • Newspaper reports
  • Medical journals
  • Magazines
  • Online Banner ads
  • Over the radio
  • TV Commercials
  • Online video
  • Throughout social media channels
  • In your schools
  • At work

How am I Influenced by Flu Shot Marketing?

You’re being influenced by colors, pictures, font styles, letter spacing, graphics, statistics, shapes, edges, lines, the pitch of someone’s voice, demographics and psychographics of

actors, the way in which words are put together, etc. These are all part of a creative marketing brief that goes into influencing a customer to buy. Here’s the central marketing message being conveyed, regardless of type of ad you’re hearing/seeing: “Influenza is a serious disease. We are all at risk of complications. The flu shot is almost risk free.  Vaccines save lives.”    ~Peter Doshi

There are a ton of ways that this message is communicated in words, pictures, using colors – everything that goes into producing an ad, as described above.  And when you layer in the total number of times you’re exposed to this message during the year, especially from September – March, all of those details can play a big part into someone’s decision on whether or not to vaccinate.

Spinning Stats for Marketing Purposes

Using statistics is a great marketing influencer.  Numbers speak volumes and can be used to easily sway your opinion. This was a common practice in the financial services sector.  I was asked to spin the story for more budget. To highlight only numbers that were in favor of getting projects approved. Urged to omit data that wasn’t supportive of my presentation but not a complete detriment to the business, either. The CDC (Center for Disease Control) uses a similar tactic. Here’s how:

  • Misrepresentation of data. 
    • According to Peter Doshi, assistant professor of pharmaceutical health services research at the University of Maryland School of Pharmacy, he shares in this article ( that only 1 in 6 (16%) of people who go to the doctor with flu-like symptoms have actually tested positive for influenza. The other 84% have non-specific respiratory illness.
    • Further more, Doshi states: “Influenza is but one of scores of respiratory viruses and some bacteria that cause ILI. Without laboratory testing, influenza infection is clinically indistinguishable from other ILI.27 Official annual respiratory viral surveillance data for the seasons 1976–1977 through 1998–1999 have shown that a mean of only 12% of “influenza specimens” actually tested positive for influenza virus.4 Between 1999 and 2001, there was positive confirmation of influenza virus for fewer than 10% of deaths recorded as caused by influenza. Although this proportion has increased in recent years (14% in 2002, 23% in 2003, 18% in 2004), in the absence of testing, cause of death is still only speculative” in this article:
    • The CDC uses words like “flu-like symptoms” to mean influenza when really, they are referring to both people with and without the actual flu.
  • Over-inflated death data.
    • Death statistics on the CDC website lump the total number of flu and pneumonia deaths together. You can see it in these charts
    • We don’t know the actual % of people who died from the flu and who died from pneumonia, separately.
    • The CDC does not indicate the indicate the number of pneumonia cases that were caused by influenza itself or if the # caused by another respiratory illness.
    • In 2017, 180 children died from the flu.  80% of them (144) were unvaccinated. Any death is horrific. But they didn’t disclose any additional data to help others make a logical conclusion as it relates to the question: is there enough evidence about those deaths that would convince me to get a flu shot? Right now, doctors and media agencies are using that number in massive ways. What we don’t know is:
      • What is that percentage on the overall total number of children? What is the historical % as a trend? When we know those details, we can make a decision on whether or not it’s a “risk” we want to take depending on if we feel that number is low or high.
      • What is that percentage on the total number of unvaccinated children? What is the historical % as a trend? Again, When we know those details, we can make a decision on whether or not it’s a “risk” we want to take depending on if we feel that number is low or high.
      • What was their diet like? “Healthy kids” means that they weren’t suffering from any particular condition. If you believe that poor nutrition = poor health, there was much more going on than meets the eye.
      • What was their living situation/lifestyle like? If you subscribe to the fact that internal and external stress creates poor health and therefore, lowered immunity, this also could have had big implications.
    • The database details all deaths from the flu. You can visit the website and send a query for all deaths and search by ICD10 codes.  What you’ll find is that there are roughly 15455 deaths for the last 19 years from the flu when you add them all up. That’s 813 deaths / year – hardly the tends of thousands that the CDC is misconstruing on their website and using in their marketing tactics. If you were to add up ALL of the respiratory related deaths, it still does NOT add up to the purported 36k per year.
    • In this screenshot, you can see where the CDC falsely averages their data which includes ALL respiratory related data.

There are some really interesting data points outlined on Dr. Joseph Mercola’s website here

Additionally, you might take a look at this video from the National Vaccine Information Center.

Is There a Hidden Agenda?

I’ll let you be the judge.  Again, ask yourself this: why would a government agency (the CDC) spend millions of dollars to market a vaccine that has very little effectiveness and isn’t fully tested for short and long-term implications? Then, conveniently omits (or distorts) data points to show to the public using psychological and marketing principles to influence the behavior they want to see change (get the vaccine)? Something isn’t adding up.

I hope this was helpful for you to connect some dots, or at least help you become more aware that what you’re seeing in the media, on posters and in store just might not be the full story.


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