In unusual vaccine push, fake funeral home redirects visitors to urgent cares for shots

Charlotte, N.C.-based advertising agency BooneOakley invented the fictional "Wilmore Funeral Home" to warn people what could happen if they remain unvaccinated against COVID-19. The strategy is bold, but marketing and health experts are split on whether it's effective.

On Sept. 19, a black truck with the phrase "Don't get vaccinated" on its side and rear panels circled the blocks around an NFL game in Charlotte. The truck appeared to belong to the nonexistent Wilmore Funeral Home, and it directed users to the funeral home's website and phone number.

The truck drew the attention of many passersby and went viral on Twitter, so the voicemail quickly became full for the third party that people reach when they call the number on the truck. 

When they visit the website, users are taken to a webpage that reads "Get vaccinated now. If not, see you soon.” The page directs users to the vaccine information page for StarMed, a chain of urgent care centers that has been providing COVID-19 vaccines in the Charlotte area.

On Sept. 21, BooneOakley tweeted it had sent out the truck. 

"Everything that's being done right now is pretty straightforward — 'get the shot,' 'get vaccinated today.' It was a different way of going about the message," David Oakley, BooneOakley's president, told The Washington Post

Mr. Oakley said taking the different approach is "worth every penny" if it gets one vaccine-hesitant person to change their mind.

BooneOakley directed calls to StarMed, but StarMed didn't hire the agency. However, Arin Piramzadian, MD, StarMed's CMO, told The Charlotte Observer he was "100 percent for it" if the campaign saves a single patient’s life. 

About 51 percent of North Carolinians remain unvaccinated, according to CDC data last updated Sept. 21.

Stacy Wood, PhD, a marketing expert from North Carolina State University in Raleigh, said the campaign was probably too high-stakes to change the minds of unvaccinated people. She said marketing research shows Americans feel their freedom is being impinged upon — and therefore become reluctant to change their minds — when they feel pressured into making a particular choice.

"I can understand that the fake funeral truck stunt was embraced by the vaccinated as the relief of dark humor in a tense situation — it’s an effective joke, but not effective marketing," Dr. Wood told The Washington Post

Scott Ratzan, MD, a health communication expert from City University of New York, agreed with Dr. Wood. "That kind of fear doesn't move people when they know there are people who have had Covid and haven't died," he said.


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