H1N1 Vaccine: A Generation Gap?
Polls released in October by various news organizations including CBS News, ABC News/Washington Post, The Associated Press, and Consumer Reports found large majorities of parents, particularly those under the age of 44, planning on foregoing the H1N1 vaccination for their children, citing concerns about the vaccine's safety. Boomer parents and non-parents, on the other hand, were less likely to question the safety of the vaccine and plan on being vaccinated when it becomes available to them.
The poll results are being corroborated by actual behavior. Two weeks ago, New York City began vaccinating elementary school children against the H1N1 virus. The vaccine is optional but free; parents need only provide permission. Citywide, according to The New York Times, less than half of the eligible parents are giving the schools' permission to inoculate their children. In at least one school, only 5% of parents opted in. And, this trend is not unique to New York City. School officials across the country are reporting low participation rates for the H1N1 vaccine.
The same week that New York City officials were trying to convince young parents to inoculate their children, officials in Los Angeles County and Chicago were urging Boomers and their parents to forego the vaccine for now; to allow the limited supplies to go to the highest risk groups first: children, pregnant women, and people with compromised immune systems.
This generational divide on vaccines reflects the first-hand experiences of both the Boomers and their younger generational siblings. Boomers were the first generation to participate in school-wide immunization in the 1950s against polio, a disease that struck 16,000 Americans annually before vaccines were made widely available.
They were also the generation to have survived a rubella outbreak in 1964-65 that developmentally afflicted tens of thousands of Americans, including 20,000 infants born to women who contracted rubella during their pregnancies. These infants suffered from developmental disabilities.
They were also the generation who heard stories from their parents and grandparents about diseases like tuberculosis, measles, diphtheria and small pox claiming the lives of their relatives and friends -- diseases that they were now fortunate enough to be vaccinated against. To Boomers, vaccines offered protection from deadly, tangible diseases.
Parents born after 1970, though, have a different first-hand experience. They are the first generation to have grown up with the luxury of protection, unexposed to these deadly childhood diseases. They have grown up during a time of tremendous medical and scientific advances where we can predict and control public health outbreaks before they can reach pandemic status.
But, this generational divide has also exposed a marketing misstep that has broader implications for all marketers. Public health officials neglected to take these different generational experiences into consideration when developing their marketing communication efforts. Had they done so, they might have been more effective in encouraging younger parents to inoculate their children.
It's a lesson all marketers should heed -- whether they are marketing health care, financial services or consumer products. Generational first-hand experiences drive attitudes, beliefs and purchase decisions.