Last week, on a phone call with Tom Cox, a former representative in the Kansas state Legislature who now works in government relations, I told him I was soon to get my first dose of the Pfizer vaccine.
“Welcome to the ruling class,” he replied. Cox had also gotten the Pfizer shot, and with it, he has lately developed—facetiously, he swears—a sense of Pfizer superiority.
It started after he, his closest friends, and his immediate family all happened to get the Pfizer vaccine. “We started calling ourselves ‘double-dosed Pfizer elites,’ ” Cox said. “I will refer to anyone who’s had one dose as a ‘one-doser.’ Like, ‘Oh, you’re a one-doser? OK, well, you’ll reach this enlightened plane soon enough.’ ”
“One of my cousins got Moderna, and I was like, ‘That’s OK. We need a strong middle class. We can’t all be CEOs.’ ”
Cox is likely not the first Pfizerphile you’ve heard sing his vaccine brand’s praises. Pro-Pfizer sentiment is all over TikTok, where you can find skits of bros bonding over their shared Pfizer status, or one creator declaring that the name itself “Sounds rich. Decadent. Luxury!”
Olajide Bamishigbin, a psychology professor in California, was on a similar wavelength recently when he tweeted a GIF of SpongeBob SquarePants dressed in a top hat and monocle alongside the words, “Me when somebody says they got any vaccine other than Pfizer.”
The Pfizer superiority complex is at once a joke and a real phenomenon. But is it affecting the vaccine rollout? “Even though I think that we have this instinct that’s out there”—the belief that Pfizer is the elite shot—“it still feels more playful than really driving outcomes,” said Manuel Hermosilla, a professor of marketing at Johns Hopkins’ Carey Business School who studies the pharmaceutical industry. He said he thinks people understand that getting whatever vaccine you can should trump any brand preference—though it’s unclear how this week’s news about the Johnson & Johnson vaccine could change that equation. On Tuesday, U.S. health agencies recommended a pause in administration of the J&J vaccine, after six women developed a rare blood clot disorder within weeks of receiving the shot. In all likelihood, this pause will be temporary. (Hermosilla, like most of this article’s sources, spoke to Slate before the J&J pause took effect.)
With the blood clot scare in the news, it may seem an uncouth time to be a Pfizer snob. Objectively, the Pfizer vaccine may have the best numbers, with an efficacy rate originally reported as 95 percent. But with a 94 percent efficacy rate, the Moderna vaccine was right behind it, and J&J’s efficacy rate of 66 percent was actually quite good, if you understand what the numbers mean. And the J&J shot has one big advantage on the other two, which is that it can be administered in one dose instead of two. Once you’re able to get it again.
As the vaccines have rolled out, many experts have strenuously rejected the idea that there’s any “best” vaccine. “The best vaccine is the one that goes in your arm,” said Mary Hayney, a professor at the University of Wisconsin–Madison School of Pharmacy who researches vaccination. “I truly believe that there is not a big difference among the vaccines, or a discernable difference. Whatever one is offered to you, take it.” (Again, Hayney spoke to Slate before the latest J&J news.)
But Lindsey Leininger, a public health scientist at the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth College, took a less hard-line approach. “Brand preference is very real, and it’s very prevalent,” she said. “I think it’s important to really highlight that these feelings are strong and they’re real, and we in public health need to make some time to actually listen to them as opposed to brushing them off.”
This is not to say people don’t make vaccination decisions for silly reasons, too. I, for example, ended up having a choice between the Pfizer and J&J vaccines. By the time I was booking my shot, I had formed an idea of what the “Real Vaccine Experience,” as the guy who runs the vaccine-finding bot TurboVax (aka Vax Daddy) put it, should entail. Vax Daddy’s Real Vaccine Experience meant getting it at New York’s Javits Center; mine did too. When I was making the split-second decision between Pfizer and J&J, because Javits happened to have both when I was booking, two shots instead of one also felt like the Real Vaccine Experience to me. (I don’t know what brand Vax Daddy got.) I can’t say I know what I would have done if Moderna had been an option. After all this, when I found out that a trusted colleague got the J&J vaccine, I briefly regretted my choice. Yes, it occurs to me that I should probably not base my health decisions so much on what my peers are doing.
“I think that’s very typical,” Leininger said after I shared my appointment reasoning with her. People are “emotion-driven in the moment. That’s how we make decisions.”
But where might my—or anyone’s—preference for Pfizer have originated?
For Hermosilla, Pfizer’s first-to-market advantage was significant. Remembering last fall, he said, “Our expectations were very low and we had a lot of time and a lot of interest in a vaccine solution to come up. Then all of the sudden in November, we get Pfizer news. At least in my reading, this was a little bit of a magical moment, when [Pfizer CEO] Albert Bourla had this press conference and said, ‘Hey, we have 95 percent efficacy.’ Remember, the FDA had said, ‘We’ll take it if it is more than 50 or 60 percent.’ I think that that was a very special moment in our collective imagination in that there was a real solution to a real problem that was delivered by science much more quickly than we could have ever imagined or hoped for based on experience. This sequence of events left a very clear mark in our minds on this Pfizer vaccine being something special.”
Leininger had a similar perspective: “I remember exactly where I was when I was reading the news on my phone and I saw the Pfizer headline about the 95 percent efficacy,” she said. “I started crying. I am not a crier. That sticks in our brains. The psychology of this is very important. I don’t remember where I was when I read the Moderna results, and I really don’t remember where I was when I read the J&J results.”
A British publication called Marketing Week that declared Pfizer “the winner of the Covid vaccine brand battle” also cited this moment: “For the first time in my adult life I listened to the World Service news with a mug of coffee and a tear rolling down my cheek,” wrote columnist Mark Ritson.
Pfizer, that hard-to-reach celebrity, didn’t respond to my questions about how it may have kindled this perception itself.
Matthew McLean, a Londoner who works in branded content, told me that part of what he liked about the Pfizer vaccine was its origin story. “There were stories about British people not going to appointments for the Pfizer vaccine when they were made available because they wanted to have ‘the Oxford vaccine,’ because the AstraZeneca vaccine was partly devised by scientists at Oxford,” he said. The Washington Post reported in February that some Brits were deriding the Pfizer vaccine as “the posh one” as opposed to “the English one.” “It’s the worst case of British jingoistic nonsense,” McLean said.
“The reverse are people like me who like Pfizer precisely because it’s European,” he went on. Pfizer is an American company, but BioNTech, the smaller firm the company partnered with on its COVID-19 vaccine, was founded by Turkish immigrants in Germany. “It was a real happy, Sesame Street, pan-European multicultural success story.
“It’s a bit like, which sounds so silly, but it’s a bit like, you know, the best leather goods come out of Italy, and the best steel comes from Sweden,” McLean said. “It feels, in that way, kind of elite and higher quality. The fact that it’s not from the U.K.—which, a lot of right-minded people are feeling more and more embarrassed about this country with Brexit and racism and everything—it’s like, ‘Oh right, we didn’t make this one; the one that comes from Europe is probably better’ is the general perception. Literally the first person who expressed this to me was my friend’s life partner. In his French accent, he was like, ‘Of course ze Pfizer is best.’ ” For what it’s worth, the U.K. is currently ahead of the rest of Europe in vaccination stats.
Hermosilla, of Johns Hopkins, said another factor helping Pfizer might be an edge in manufacturing and distribution. “Pfizer has retained the headlines in the news because they have better manufacturing capabilities abilities, and so they are making more vaccines.” The New York Times reported that “more than 180 million doses of Pfizer and Moderna have been administered” so far in the rollout, as opposed to just 7 million of J&J. These numbers don’t make me personally feel very elite, and they arguably make J&J look like the rare, limited-edition option.
He also noted that while developing the vaccine, Pfizer was already in the midst of a brand overhaul. It recently debuted a new logo that positions it as less consumer-oriented—no more pill shape—and more focused on scientific breakthroughs. He said he is interested to see what Pfizer does with the brand boost it’s gained through its vaccine success—but is surprised it hasn’t really done anything for the company’s stock yet. “Most people would agree that the reputational impact that has been thrust upon Pfizer over the last year has been very positive, brand-wise,” he said, but “there hasn’t been the stock market reaction that you would expect.”
Can the idea of a Pfizer preference be substantiated with, I don’t know, data? Peter Loewen, a professor at the University of Toronto’s Munk School of Global Affairs & Public Policy, conducted a study of Canadians’ vaccine brand preferences and found that Pfizer and Moderna were tied at the top of the list, with AstraZeneca, after a run of its own negative blood-clotting news, at the bottom, despite its still being quite effective. Loewen’s study was of Canadians, who have a different health system and different norms than Americans. But still, if they like Moderna just as much, how real can the preference for Pfizer be?
It was real enough for McLean, the Londoner, that he went out of his way to secure the shot. “It’s not like I would have been like, ‘I refuse anything but Pfizer!’ but I went the extra mile to get Pfizer,” he said. “I actually got two invitations from two separate bits of the health care network. One was from a sort of local community walk-in center, and one was in a hospital, which was actually much farther away from where I live, so it was more of a big deal to go there. But one of the reasons I went with the hospital option was because I had a hunch that they were gonna give out Pfizer, and the local place would give the other one.”
For Kimberly Vo, a software engineer in the Bay Area who wasn’t yet eligible to make a vaccine appointment when we spoke, it’s mostly just an online joke: “It’s this funny, lighthearted thing that has sprung up over social media,” she said. “My personal perception came mostly from going on TikTok. It’s a lot of Pfizer elitism on there.
“Everyone’s just been bored, and we’ve been locked in our houses,” she said of the way the vaccines have become personified. “We finally have something that is unifying all of us.” There’s been criticism that all this amounts to “stanning” for pharmaceutical companies, players in an industry that is widely acknowledged to be, if not flat-out evil, at least worthy of skepticism. I would give a little more credit to the memers, many of whom I think are playing on that very irony for laughs.
But jokes can shape people’s perceptions, as Cox, the former state representative, discovered. “One of our friends was supposed to get the Pfizer shot, but he messed up his order, and ended up getting Johnson & Johnson,” he said. After so much exposure to Cox’s Pfizer boosterism, the friend had a case of PFOMO. “He has not been following a lot of this, and so he was like, ‘OK, but is this one actually worse?’ ” Cox said he reassured his pal that the J&J shot would protect him.
Leininger, too, came up against the issue not of Pfizer snobbery but J&J sneering, recalling one meme in particular. “There’s one that I find disappointing—understandable, but disappointing. I saw one that said ‘House J&J: Good enough,’ and I was like, ‘Oh man!’ As a public health professional, I wish that weren’t in the zeitgeist.” And if it wasn’t in the zeitgeist widely before—we spoke before the J&J pause—it sure is now.
As much as he knows “it’s all nonsense,” McLean said it could be slightly awkward to compare notes with friends who’d gotten different shots. He recalled trying to comfort a friend who was “downhearted” after getting the AstraZeneca. “It’s a little bit like if you’re comparing exam grades,” he told me. He felt like he’d gotten an A with Pfizer, while his friend had gotten a B or a C—and he didn’t want to make it worse by rubbing it in.