How Elvis Got Americans to Accept the Polio Vaccine

Hal Hershfield and Ilana Brody at Scientific American: “Campaigns to change behavior thrive on three factors: social influence, social norms and vivid examples…In late 1956, Elvis Presley was on the precipice of global stardom. “Heartbreak Hotel” had reached number one on the charts earlier that year and Love Me Tender, his debut film,would be released in November. In the midst of this trajectory, he was booked as a guest on the most popular TV show at the time, The Ed Sullivan Show. But he wasn’t only there to perform his hits. Before the show started, and in front of the press and Ed Sullivan himself, Presley flashed his swoon-worthy smile, rolled up his sleeves and let a New York state official stick a needle loaded up with the polio vaccine in his arm.

At that point, the polio virus had been ravaging the American landscape for years, and approximately 60,000 children were infected annually. By 1955, hope famously arrived in the form of Jonas Salk’s vaccine. But despite the literally crippling effects of the virus and the promising results of the vaccination, many Americans simply weren’t getting vaccinated. In fact, when Presley appeared on the Sullivan show, immunization levels among American teens were at an abysmal 0.6 percent.

You might think that threats to children’s health and life expectancy would be enough to motivate people to get vaccinated. Yet, convincing people to get a vaccine is a challenging endeavor. Intuitively, it seems like it would be wise to have doctors and other health officials communicate the need to receive the vaccine. Or, failing that, we might just need to give people more information about the effectiveness of the vaccine itself…(More)”.