Immunization is one of the greatest public health achievements of our time. Even so, adult coverage rates remain far below public health targets because the promised benefits for vaccinations are not clear to consumers. Adults have been informed – but not persuaded – for too many years. When combined with the ongoing debate over the efficacy of certain adult vaccines, it’s clearer than ever that the healthcare community is failing to persuade the adult public that proper immunization is a society-changing, and possibly life-saving, decision.

It is our belief that achieving better growth rates in adult immunization requires new thinking and a new framework for taking collective action. We need an innovative yet proven approach to marry public policy goals with corporate advertising budgets and marketing savvy.

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Everyone is familiar with the iconic Got Milk campaign, but what you may not know is that it’s one of more than twenty industry promotion efforts commonly known as “check-off programs.” These programs operate as public-private partnerships authorized by the United States Congress enabling an industry to pool its dollars and cooperatively market products on an unbranded, “commodity” basis. Check-off programs have existed for more than 60 years in industries that contribute to the good of society, such as promoting health and nutrition via Got Milk, or creating expanded and stable agricultural markets and exports for Cotton, The Fabric of Our Lives. 

A quick look at immunization adoption rates illustrates the current apathy toward adult vaccines. Improvement in adult coverage rates remains slow and clearly inadequate to reach current public health goals. For example, despite a universal annual influenza immunization recommendation since 2010 from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC), the current national coverage rate hovers at about 42 percent. 

Like other elective preventive care choices, the demand for adult vaccines is fundamentally weak despite the very real human consequence of preventable disease. To add to this challenge, demand is not being driven by our nation’s health care providers, whose daily juggling act of chronic conditions and acute ailments invariably trumps preventing diseases that are not perceived as imminent concerns by patients.

The National Vaccine Program Office of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) recently released for public comment its Draft National Adult Immunization Plan. The third of four major goals is to “Increase Community Demand for Adult Immunizations,” with sub-objectives to “educate and encourage” not only individuals, but also health care professionals and community-based groups.   

Check-offs and other cooperative marketing programs are proven and powerful tools to reach those kinds of goals and objectives, and adult vaccination is an excellent example of where the commercial goals to sell more vaccinations are well aligned with policy goals to increase vaccination rates. 

The check-off model has yet to be applied to public health and we see it as a great solution to the challenge of improving adult immunization rates as underscored in HHS’s newest plan.

Generic advertising – the primary domain of check-offs – is especially appropriate here, given its rather amazing history of creating highly memorable and emotionally engaging ads without referencing specific companies, brands or products: Got Milk, The California Raisins, Friends Don’t Let Friends Drive Drunk, and Beef, It’s What’s for Dinner are just a few examples.

With strong alignment between the business goals of the vaccine industry and the policy goals of the public health sector, we are already halfway there. It will take leadership from both sides to push the idea forward. This must include industry champions who understand that a check-off could be the rising tide to lift all boats and health advocates to carry the idea over its inevitable political hurdles.

It’s time for key stakeholders to recommit to solving this problem in a new way by asking the U.S. Congress to authorize a check-off. This will allow the vaccine manufacturers to collectively bring their best marketing power to bear on this problem. We believe applying this proven partnership model to public health could be the answer to driving adult vaccination beyond its current stasis, for the protection and well-being of all.

Tan is the chief strategy officer for the Immunization Action Coalition (IAC) and co-founded National Adult Immunization Summit. Prior to his current position, Tan was the director of medicine and public health at the American Medical Association. This op-ed represents the personal opinion of Dr. Tan and does not reflect the position of the IAC.  Nagle is the managing partner at Statler Nagle LLC, and a long-time marketing leader in several of the nation’s most prestigious market research and advertising agencies.  He also spent more than a decade as the head of marketing for the “Got Milk” campaign of the International Dairy Foods Association.