‘Don’t get vaccinated’: Fake funeral home used to promote coronavirus shot

·4 min read
The ad truck drove around Charlotte on Sunday as football fans headed to a game (BooneOakley)
The ad truck drove around Charlotte on Sunday as football fans headed to a game (BooneOakley)

An ad truck appearing to spread anti-vax messaging caused a stir among US football fans in Charlotte, North Carolina, over the weekend.

The vehicle, which had a funeral home’s name and website at the bottom of its giant advert, was emblazoned with a plain black board and a slogan which read: “Don't get vaccinated”.

Images show onlookers taking note of the truck after the ad agency responsible told it to drive around Charlotte in the hope of targeting sporting fans as they headed to watch the Carolina Panthers play the New Orleans Saints.

As it happens, though, the advert contains a hidden message. There is no “Wilmore Funeral Home”, which the ad claims to represent, and going to its website takes visitors to a landing page instructing them to do the opposite of what it says.

“Get vaccinated now” appears on the site, along with a message that says, “If not, see you soon”. The ad agency, BooneOakley, said it was time to get creative and tackle America’s waning Covid-19 vaccine take-up.

“I just feel like conventional advertising is not working. Like, just regular messages that say 'Get the Shot' or 'Go Get Vaccinated' ... they just kind of blend in with everything else,” agency director David Oakley told CNN. “We wanted to do something that saw it from a different perspective and kind of shocks people into thinking, 'Holy moly, man.'”

Once visitors to the hoax site click the “Get vaccinated now” box, they are redirected to a local urgent healthcare centre, StarMed, which administers Covid jabs.

The unconventional tactic comes as employers and public health officials scramble to convince vaccine-sceptic Americans to get inoculated. Everything from offering people money and free food to luxury holidays and VIP Super Bowl tickets has been trialled, yet the fully vaccinated account for just 54.7 per cent of the total US population.

In North Carolina, the situation is worse still, with around 48.8 per cent of residents estimated to be fully vaccinated.

A similar method was trialled earlier this year in the UK when the government partnered with taxi apps Uber and Bolt, and food delivery company Deliveroo, to persuade hesitant Britons to get the jab. A typical offer included a ride to a vaccine centre followed by a free slice of pizza.

Mr Oakley, of BooneOakley, said the inspiration behind the advert was simply that “we want people to get vaccinated”.

“And I believe even if just one person gets vaccinated because of that billboard, I give it a grand success. Just one person, it will be worth it to me,” he added.

Knowing there would be crowds tailgating for Sunday's game, Mr Oakley said it seemed like an ideal opportunity to give people “something to talk about other than football”.

One woman, who happened to be driving around Charlotte during the match, labelled the truck “pretty smart marketing”.

Katie Guenther told reporters that as it drove in front of her, she could see crowds of people looking at it. “It was definitely getting a lot of attention,” Ms Guenther, who is vaccinated, said.

Dozens of social media users appeared to take the advert well. After BooneOakley posted an image of the van parked outside its offices on Twitter, hundreds of people liked, shared and replied to the image.

“Brilliant!,” one woman, Imelda March, wrote, while another said: “Nicely done, y’all.”

Local residents who had seen the truck also left messages saying they were “thrilled” to have seen it both on their Twitter feed and their streets. “Keep up the good fight,” Christy Chilton said.

Asked why the agency decided to partner with StarMed, Mr Oakley said “many” of his staff had been jabbed there – but admitted it was not a simple ‘yes’ from the health brand.

“As a healthcare organisation, they were a little bit, let's just say a little nervous about it,” he said. “We were nervous about it too to be honest, and how it would go over. But they agreed to let us link to their site and that was phenomenal, because that's what made the whole thing work – to me, anyway.”

StarMed has vaccinated “hundreds of thousands of people” and tested just as many, Adam Hummell, a member of StarMed's marketing team, said.

The advert had the desired effect, Mr Hummell said, revealing that since the weekend, traffic to book a vaccine appointment on the site had seen a “significant boost”.

A similar stunt was pulled in Canada back in 2016. An ad agency in Toronto, Ontario, put a billboard above the Gardiner Expressway advertising Wathan Funeral Home with a slogan which read: “Text and drive.”

Heading to that hoax website gave visitors statistics about drivers who use their phones – including that more than half of the province’s residents admitted to reading texts while driving – and asked Canadians to make a change.

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