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Hip-hop, Dolly Parton, and Elton John: Penn researcher reviews creative pro-vaccine messages

To persuade the vaccine-hesitant, music, comedy, and fun can be powerful tools (if done right), Kathleen Hall Jamieson says.

Hip Hop Public Health, a New York-based nonprofit, produced five animated videos to encourage vaccination, voiced by rapper Darryl DMC McDaniels.
Hip Hop Public Health, a New York-based nonprofit, produced five animated videos to encourage vaccination, voiced by rapper Darryl DMC McDaniels.Read moreHip Hop Public Health

We’ve been listening to gloomy-voiced epidemiologists for the last year. Government officials armed with charts. Doctors attempting to convey the results of scientific studies in a sound bite.

Now that vaccines are becoming widely available, might it be time for a bit of fun?

Kathleen Hall Jamieson thinks so.

Jamieson, director of the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg Public Policy Center, studies what methods work best in communicating science, whether it’s about vaccines or climate change. Among her top tips: Use sources that are trusted by the audience, and employ visual aids that help viewers reach a conclusion. Above all, treat the audience with respect.

None of that precludes using a fun or creative approach where appropriate, she said. Music, art, and comedy can be powerful tools in reaching any audience, especially those that might not otherwise tune in.

“There are people who will pay attention to those things who will not watch the sober videos produced by public-health experts,” she said.

So we collected some widely shared pro-vaccine videos from the last few months and asked Jamieson to watch them with a critic’s eye. There is rap, country music, cartoons, and more — and, because we’re writing from Philadelphia, a video of the local Black Doctors COVID-19 Consortium simply dancing for joy.

Take it away, professor.

Community Immunity

“Nine out of 10 people won’t get sick. That’s 90% effective — and legit!”
Darryl DMC McDaniels

That’s rapper Darryl DMC McDaniels, lending his voice to a series of five animations created by Hip Hop Public Health, a New York-based nonprofit.

Jamieson is a fan, especially of one titled Are Vaccines Safe and How Do I Know This? The information is rock-solid, she said, and delivered in a way meant to connect with Black viewers and other underserved communities.

“You are communicating in a more powerful way than if you’re communicating from the mainstream,” she said. “You’ve established that it’s coming from within the culture of a community.”

In the video, McDaniels acknowledges that some Black viewers may have good reason to be leery of the health-care system, but immediately counters with the message that scientists of color were among those developing the vaccines, and that they are widely endorsed by Black physicians. He says:

“People want to know is the vaccine safe? It doesn’t have anything to do with race.”
Darryl DMC McDaniels

In another animation, Hip Hop founder and Columbia University neurology professor Olajide Williams shoots down the widespread falsehood that the RNA vaccines can affect your DNA. Smart stuff.

Elton John as comedian?

Next up: a comic bit from a pair of British megastars, Elton John and Michael Caine.

The premise is that they are auditioning for roles in — what else? — a pro-vaccine video. It’s funny, especially the part where John, who made his name in pop music, is chided for his clumsy attempt at acting.

But Jamieson wonders whether the comedy might distract some viewers from the message.

“The advantage of celebrity videos is that celebrities attract viewers,” she said. “The disadvantage of celebrity videos is they often forget to visually reinforce the message.”

John pretends to wince after getting a shot, then breaks into one of his old hits, 1983′s “I’m Still Standing.” Not so good. But then Caine gets the shot, and emphasizes to viewers that it did not hurt.

“If what you take away from that is they’re putting down Elton John, they failed,” Jamieson said. “If you’re taking away from it that they both got vaccinated, it’s fine. But are you identifying with the celebrities in a way that increases your chance of getting vaccinated?”

Dolly Parton

The country music star went viral with a fresh take on an old hit, “Jolene,” replacing the name of the title character with the word vaccine.

“Vaccine, vaccine, vaccine, vaaa-cine. I’m begging of you, please don’t hesitate.”
Dolly Parton

It’s a good idea to use a well-known song, Jamieson says.

But at nearly four minutes, the video is long. There are just a few lines of song, followed by minutes of Parton chatting as she waits for the doctor to fumble with his equipment.

“Why aren’t we hearing more of the song?” Jamieson asked. “Have her sing it multiple times. Put it on country radio stations.”

Parton also supported the vaccines financially. She donated $1 million to Vanderbilt University in 2020 for three pandemic projects, including one related to testing the Moderna vaccine.

The cartoon doc

Mike Natter won acclaim for drawing medical cartoons while studying at Thomas Jefferson University’s Kimmel Medical College. The illustrations helped him and his classmates retain complicated information.

Now an endocrinology fellow at NYU Langone Medical Center, he uses his artistic talents to teach others. In November, Natter posted a series of 10 catchy images on Instagram, explaining the science behind the RNA vaccines — one made by Moderna, the other a joint effort by Pfizer and BioNTech.

He shows a human cell reading genetic instructions to make the “spike” protein of the coronavirus, followed by drawings of helmeted immune soldiers bearing Y-shaped weapons: antibodies.

Thumbs-up for accuracy, Jamieson says. But she has one quibble: The cartoon coronavirus looks angry.

“I don’t want to make the virus angry,” she said. “I want to kill it.”

‘My Shot’

With lyrics like “I’m not throwing away my shot,” it was inevitable that someone would do a vaccine version of the hit song from the musical Hamilton. Sure enough, a group of northern California physicians stepped up.

It is well-done, Jamieson said, with sharp camera work and potent lyrics. One line sounds as if it came straight from her: a reminder that doctors should not order their patients around, but involve them in the decision to get a vaccine:

“Geniuses! Lower your voices. You keep pushing patients like they haven’t got choices.”
"My Shot"

The Penn communications expert gave the video her seal of approval, though as with Dolly Parton video, Jamieson found My Shot to go on a bit too long.

“You could cut the last third off of it and lose nothing,” she said.

Among the pluses, she said, is featuring seven different physicians. They aren’t household names, just everyday providers who have been on the front lines for months, proclaiming over and over that they are getting a shot.

Fork hands

Remember the spikes on each coronavirus particle? New York actor Vick Krishna thinks of them as kitchen forks.

In a comic routine on TikTok, he acts out the part of messenger RNA delivering instructions to make the “fork,” then pretends to be an immune cell making antibodies: the virus-neutralizing “fork hands.”

As with the other clips, Jamieson gave this one high marks for scientific accuracy. But she wondered how well an uninformed person could learn the facts from Krishna’s rapid-fire delivery.

“If it’s communicating well to people who are already knowledgeable, that’s not helpful,” she said. “The question is, is there enough there to bring an unknowledgeable person up to speed?”

Just dance

No facts here, just dancing.

Ala Stanford and other members of the Black Doctors COVID-19 Consortium, which she founded to reach Philadelphians more equitably, showed their moves on Broad Street in mid-March, celebrating the vaccination of 25,000 people at their walk-in Philadelphia clinics.

Earlier in the month, vaccine recipient Gurdeep Pandher seemed equally joyful in his dance on a frozen lake, thousands of miles away in Canada’s Yukon territory.

Though neither clip contains vaccine information, the dancers’ enthusiasm is contagious, Jamieson says. The videos might very well sway others who are hesitant about rolling up their sleeves.

“We tend to mirror other people’s moods,” she said. “If you associate the vaccines with that attitude of ‘this is the happiest I’ve ever been,’ there is something telegraphic about that.”

Jamieson herself got a second dose of the Moderna vaccine recently, and said she felt much the same way.

“Am I going to go out and dance?” she asked. “No. But do I feel like it? Yeah.”

After watching the videos, maybe even more people will feel the same.