VERMONT - The Vermont Health Department has launched a colorful advertising campaign urging Green Mountain state residents to get immunized against influenza. Although officials say it's aimed at adults, the $58,000 media blitz makes use of cartoon-style characters that are typically more appealing to children. Health department researchers worked with TDI Creative, a Vermont talent agency, in developing the superhero theme featured in more than 1000 newspaper, radio and television ads around the state.
The creative strategy for this flu season features costumed figures played by actors or drawn by artists. They urge Vermonters to get vaccinated by pitching blurbs such as "Think superheroes put their community at risk for flu? Think again - Get a flu shot. Be a superhero."
The "F" emblazoned on the chests of many of the action figures stands for "Factman" - a personification of the health department's effort to increase vaccination rates by countering myths about the flu. For example, many of the spots note that the vaccine cannot cause the disease and has been proven effective in reducing the risk of contracting it.
Among the local actors playing a superhero part is State Rep. Jason Lorber, a Democrat from Burlington's Old North End who supplements his legislator's salary with film, theater, TV and stand-up comedy gigs.
Although he votes on state health department budgets, and received federal dollars for his work on the flu-shot ad campaign, Lorber and state Health Commissioner Sharon Moffatt say no conflict of interest is involved. Lorber says he responded to a casting call without knowing who was sponsoring the advertising campaign. And he was paid through his agent, who in turn received a check from TDI Creative, Lorber adds.
Moffatt said she had been under the impression that Lorber had volunteered his talent for the state-initiated public-health campaign. Apprised of the for-pay arrangement, Moffat said she believes the circuitous routing of ad-campaign funds from the federal Centers for Disease Control immunizes Lorber from any ethical issues.
The effectiveness of the superhero infomercials will be hard to gauge. Moffatt says firm statistics are not compiled on the percentage of Vermonters who receive flu inoculations in a given year. The best estimate, based on telephone surveys, is that about 60 percent of adult Vermonters got the shots during last year's flu season, Moffatt says.
The CDC is encouraging states to hatch "innovative ideas" for vaccine ads because the similar national coverage rate is "less than hoped for," the Vermont health chief notes. Seeking to scale down the national flu and pneumonia fatality rate, estimated at 36,000 deaths per year - 100-plus in Vermont - the CDC is pushing toward a vaccination goal of 90 percent of adult Americans by 2010. Vermont already reaches or surpasses that level with regard to children and residents of nursing homes, Moffatt says.
The superhero campaign is aimed specifically at young adults - a segment of the population with a low immunization rate based on the misconception, she says, that "nothing bad is going to happen to me."
Plentiful supplies of the vaccine are expected to be available in Vermont this flu season, which runs from now through early spring. Doses are dispensed at a wide variety of clinics around the state, generally at a cost of $15 to $20 per shot and free for Vermonters who can't afford it.
No cases of the flu have so far been reported in the state, Moffatt says. But an outbreak is being monitored in North Carolina, she adds, suggesting that this relatively early appearance of the flu might presage a severe season.