In 1954, Polio was still a big problem. A Vaccine had been developed, but no one wanted to take it, unless their doctor directly recommended it and explained the reasons for needing it to you, in person. That wasn’t going to be enough to get everyone on board, and so while there was a cure on-hand, getting Americans on board was the problem. Educating people about getting the Polio Vaccination was slow work, and Americans are a cowardly, superstitious lot. And how do you reach all people in all classes? Literacy is still an issue, and for many, it was easy to refuse the vaccine, even if it was easy to get.
After two years of struggling to solve this problem, they hit upon an idea: Let’s get Elvis Presley, one of the most popular rock musicians at the time, to help promote the idea of vaccination. Elvis is then vaccinated on The Ed Sullivan Show in 1956, which is seen by millions of people, and is accompanied by some clear Public Health Data. This event was reported on widely, so even if you didn’t have a TV, it was that generation’s, “Shot heard round the world.”
According to many historians, that single TV appearance alone accounted for nearly 80% of the population getting vaccinated, something that was unheard of before. By 1963, it had been announced that the number of Polio cases had dropped to zero, which is truly astonishing, when you consider that nearly a decade previously, it was nearly impossible to imagine any way that could ever happen.
The power of celebrity, indeed.
I’ve been thinking about the kinds of celebrities now, that could have that same kind of juice, and could get that many American’s on board with a massive vaccination effort. Clearly, Americans can’t really think for themselves, and need a trusted celebrity, who is loved across parties and across economic backgrounds, and at this point, across generations. Presidents are too divisive, and this issue is so politicized that, like with the Polio Vaccine, the appeal of the celebrity has to be so universal that people of different opposing religions will still stand six feet apart from each other in the same line just to get the vaccine, and that’s a pretty tall order.
Universally Loved? In 2020? Wouldn’t that be Pikachu, or an Animal Crossing character?