Some of you may recall that this past April the anti-vaccine National Vaccine Information Center (NVIC) ran an ad in New York City’s Times Square. The ad was made to basically do two things: 1) propagate falsehoods about vaccines, and 2) direct traffic to the NVIC website. One way in which the ad tries to mislead people is by playing on a “pro-choice” mentality concerning vaccines: the notion that they aren’t really necessary and the government/medical community is trying to make decisions for parents regarding their children’s health. It follows up encouraging parents to “get informed”: see for yourself.
As a board member, I’m proud to say that the Women Thinking Free Foundation’s Hug Me I’m Vaccinated! campaign was the first to sound the alarm about the NVIC’s deceptive ad, and we spread the word to others. Once the medical and skeptical communities found out about this ad, they quickly swung into action in an attempt to counter the blatant misinformation contained therein and at NVIC’s website and expressed outrage at this attempt to actively discourage parents from vaccinating their children against deadly diseases. There was also an online petition created at Change.org demanding that CBS (the company hosting the ad) remove it, and even the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) got into the fray asking CBS to remove the deceptive ads. The AAP stated in their letter:
The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) objects to the paid advertisement/public service message from the National Vaccine Information Center (NVIC) being shown throughout the month of April on the CBS JumboTron in Times Square, New York. The AAP and many other child health organizations have worked hard to protect children and their families from unfounded and unscientific misinformation regarding vaccine safety. Vaccines are safe.
By providing advertising space to an organization like the NVIC, which opposes the nation’s recommended childhood immunization schedule and promotes the unscientific practice of delaying or skipping vaccines altogether, you are putting the lives of children at risk, leaving them unprotected from vaccine-preventable diseases. Diseases like measles and pertussis (whooping cough) can have serious consequences, including seizures, brain damage and even death. From January 1 through December 31, 2010, 9,477 cases of pertussis (including ten infant deaths) were reported throughout California. This is the most cases reported in 65 years there.
The AAP’s 60,000 member pediatricians urge you to remove these harmful messages, which fail to inform the public about the safety of life-saving vaccines. Please do your part to help reassure parents that vaccinating their children on schedule is the best way to protect them from deadly diseases.
Unfortunately, the ads were not removed, partly because they were already playing by the time we had been alerted to their presence.
Well, in a case of déjà vu all over again, we find ourselves in the same position as last April. Except this time the potential that the NVIC’s dangerous misinformation is seen is magnified by orders of magnitude because they are going to be running their ad (through ABC Full Circle) on the Times Square megatron on New Year’s Eve, when millions, possibly billions, of people are going to be tuning in to watch the end-of-the-year festivities! Here is the ad and some of the text from the NVIC’s announcement…
A vaccine education message sponsored by NVIC will be shown during the New Year's Eve celebration in Times Square on the 5,000 square-foot TSQ Digital screen at 47th St. and 7th Ave. in New York City. The 15-second ad, which encourages informed decision-making, has been shown on the megatron twice an hour for 21 hours a day since Dec. 16, 2011. …
… The full-color LED screen on which NVIC's ad is appearing is located near the Times Square Information Center in the heart of the Broadway district and is one of the largest digital display screens in the Times Square area. An estimated one million people pack the Times Square area during New Year's Eve and the celebration is viewed on television by billions of people around the world...
It seems that, once again, the ads are already running, but what’s worse is the clear planning that went into this by the NVIC to gain maximum exposure by displaying the ad in such a manner that potentially billions of people could see it all over the world. That means the NVIC doesn’t just want to discourage (or eliminate) vaccination in the United States (where the population is relatively healthy) but also in developing nations and other places where deadly diseases are much more of a problem than in the developed world. Folks, this is just sickening.
So the question now is what do we do about it? Well, there are a number of things that can be done:
1. Direct people to reliable and trustworthy outlets for vaccine information – a quick and handy one is the Women Thinking Free Foundation’s Hug Me I’m Vaccinated FAQ.
I resolve to end deadly anti-vaccine propaganda. @DisneyChannelPR Pull NVIC’s anti-vax Times Square ad.
Whooping cough is on the rise thanks to things like NVIC advertising on @DisneyChannelPR screens in NYC. #ABCsSickNYE http://bit.ly/rXLHOd
4. Contact Gerald Griffin at ABC Full Circle by emailing Gerald.T.Griffin@abc.com or calling 212.456.7389 to voice your displeasure with them playing the NVIC ad.
It has become clear to me there is a pattern emerging here on the part of the NVIC to get lots of high-profile ad space in Times Square, so whether or not we are successful at getting this latest ad pulled before New Year’s Eve, once thing that needs to happen is there needs to be a sustained campaign mounted against this sort of nonsense. It seems there might be some signs of success from our earlier involvement with the NVIC’s April ad, because note the company running this new ad is not CBS. Perhaps the pressure we brought to bear on CBS back then had an effect? I’d like to think so, and hopefully we can bring similar pressure to bear against ABC Full Circle this time around.
And this campaign needs to be mounted from the inside as well as the outside: it seems we in the skeptical and pro-science community need media connections within the companies which rent out space for these high-profile ads. We need to inform and educate these companies about the part they are playing in spreading this dangerous anti-vaccination misinformation, and we need to raise such a fuss that they’ll simply refuse the NVIC the next time they come wanting to rent the space.
Of course, none of this will work without you. So please take some time to get involved and take action now – it really is a matter of life or death.
Matt Lowry is a high school & college physics professor with a strong interest in promoting science education, skepticism and critical thinking among his students and the population in general. Towards these ends, he works with the JREF on their educational advisory board, and he also works with a number of grassroots skeptical, pro-science groups. In what little spare time he has, he blogs on these and related subjects at The Skeptical Teacher.