Ringing in 2012 with…antivaccine propaganda?

Here we go again.

In fact, I think I’m starting to see a pattern here among antivaccine organizations. You might remember that in November 2010, the antivaccine group SafeMinds bought ad space in AMC Theaters over the Thanksgiving holiday weekend, one of the heaviest moviegoing time periods of the year. This use of pre-movie time to promote antivaccine propaganda resulted in a campaign by skeptics to try to persuade AMC to see the error of its ways, a campaign that was successful.

Then, a few months later, the the grande dame of the antivaccine movement, arguably the woman who started the most recent incarnation of that hoary old anti-science movement back in the 1980s, Barbara Loe Fisher, decided to start advertising the antivaccine message she promotes through her group, the Orwellian-named National Vaccine Information Center (NVIC) using the JumboTron in Times Square. Unfortunately, despite protests from the American Academy of Pediatrics, promoters of science-based medicine, and skeptics, the ads apparently aired for the full buy.

Then, a few months later (just last month, in fact), somehow the NVIC managed to dupe Delta Airlines, through its video provider In-Flight Media into airing a more subtle “public service announcement” whose antivaccine message was cleverly muted so that it wasn’t so obvious, except to those of us who knew the NVIC (and, of course, the buzzwords used by the antivaccine movement) that its message was antivaccine. Of course, it also didn’t help that the PSA urged viewers to go to the NVIC website, which, as I’ve described many times before, is a font of misinformation, pseudoscience, and antivaccine propaganda. (Just type “NVIC” into this blog’s search box to see.) At least Fisher’s response of crying “repression” in response to the AAP’s complaint to Delta Air Lines was good for a chuckle or two. Unfortunately, the NVIC advertorials aired through the entire buy. Meanwhile, this fall a major dump of antivaccine propaganda was circulating around the country in various film festivals in the form of an antivaccine propaganda movie called The Greater Good, whose manipulativeness and misinformation would make a North Korean propagandists planning state media coverage of Kim Jong-il‘s funeral blush.

Now, it would appear, the NVIC wants to close out 2011 and ring in 2012 with a new round of antivaccine propaganda, this time revisiting Times Square at the heart of the New Years Eve celebration, an effort it’s trumpeting through a press release entitled National Vaccine Information Center (NVIC) Educates One Million Plus in Times Square on New Year’s Eve. Here, Barbara, I’ll fix that for you. It should read “National Vaccine Information Center (NVIC) Mis-Educates One Million Plus in Times Square on New Year’s Eve.”

There, that’s better.

Interestingly, the ad is not airing on the JumboTron (perhaps CBS turned the NVIC down). This time, it’s airing on the TSQdigital display right by the TKTS Broadway Ticket Booth. But what, exactly, is the NVIC airing? Well, here’s the description from the press release:

The non-profit National Vaccine Information Center (NVIC) is sponsoring a vaccine education message during the New Year’s Eve celebration in Times Square on the 5,000 square-foot TSQ Digital screen at 47th St. and 7th Avenue 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.

“Everyone has the right to know about the benefits and risks of products and choose the kind of preventive health care they want for themselves and their children.”

“In 2012, NVIC will mark our 30th year of public education and consumer empowerment,” said NVIC co-founder and president Barbara Loe Fisher. “With so many health care options available today, becoming an educated health care consumer is essential and our pro-informed consent message will be seen by millions on New Year’s Eve.”

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.

NVIC co-sponsored a similar vaccine education message with last spring on another display in Times Square. During November, NVIC sponsored a flu prevention video on Delta Air Line’s in-flight programming that encouraged consumers to become informed about how to stay well during the flu season and all year-around.

“Knowledge is the key to informed consumer decision-making,” said Fisher. “Everyone has the right to know about the benefits and risks of products and choose the kind of preventive health care they want for themselves and their children.”

As I said, NVIC has the Orwellian language down pat. It wraps up its antivaccine message in a cloak of “informed consent” and “educating the consumer,” and who could argue with that? Of course, it all comes down to what specifically is meant by “informed consent” and “educating the consumer.” As I described in detail, when an antivaccine propagandist like Barbara Loe Fisher refers to “informed consent,” what she is really referring to is “misinformed consent,” in which consumers are subjected to misinformation about vaccines that vastly overestimates the risks and vastly downplays the benefits or try to cast the benefits in a manner that makes them seem inconsequential, sometimes in hilariously off base ways. Often, antivaccine activists use even more hilariously bad science to bolster their misinformed arguments. Or the bad science would be hilarious if the consequences of its use weren’t so potentially deadly.

Anyway, let’s look at the video:

It would appear that the NVIC has–shall we say?–simplified its message for Times Square. Basically, the video consists of a picture of a mother holding a baby with the NVIC logo and website URL in the lower left hand corner. It then flashes the words “Vaccines: Know the risks” followed by “Vaccination: Your Health. Your Family. Your Choice,” the latter superimposed over a graphic of the Statue of Liberty.

Subtle, isn’t it?

Those not familiar with the NVIC would ask: What on earth is wrong with this message? Don’t you want parents to know the risks of vaccination? Don’t you think that personal freedom is important? Let’s go back to the concept of misinformed consent. If you know, as I do, that the NVIC website is a massive source of pseudoscience, fear mongering, and misinformation about vaccines (again, type “NVIC” or “Barbara Loe Fisher” into the search box of this blog for examples), then this video starts to look a lot less benign. The reason, of course, is that it’s not the purpose of the NVIC to provide parents with an evidence- and science-based assessment of vaccine risks and benefits. The purpose of the NVIC is to scare parents into not vaccinating.

Barbara Loe Fisher will strenuously deny that she is antivaccine and claim that she is pro-vaccine safety. That is how antivaccine activists hide their intent, possibly even from themselves, as both Steve Novella and I have pointed out. There might, in fact, have been a time when this might arguably have been true. Unfortunately, Fisher long ago passed from being a vaccine safety activist into the realm of antivaccine zealotry, as her website demonstrates so strongly. I think it would be really interesting one day to ask Fisher a simple question: “If you’re not ‘antivaccine,’ then please tell us which vaccines you consider safe and effective. Which vaccines should be on the pediatric vaccine schedule?” I’ve yet to find a statement by Fisher in the last decade supporting the use of any vaccine. Of course, Fisher, being the seasoned antivaccine propagandist that she’s become over the last 30 years, probably has a pat answer to that question that hides her antivaccine agenda, at least to the unknowing. It’s still a good question to ask any antivaccine activist very insistently.

The answer to this question often reveals much. In fact, if you want to see an example of this very technique in action, check out the comments after this post on the anti vaccine propaganda blog Age of Autism in which a commenter asks Jake Crosby which vaccine(s) he finds acceptable. John Stone predictably responds with some blather about “parental choice” (completely—and obviously—dodging the question) and Jake responds thusly:

No, I don’t “care to explain.” I don’t have to explain anything. The people who are anti-vaccine are the people who say they are anti-vaccine – not the people who say vaccines cause autism – although I am sure the latter understandably includes some of the former.

Barbara Loe Fisher is, of course, less clumsy at dancing around difficult questions. No doubt Jake will get better at dissembling with time. He is, after all, quite young. In any case, the purpose of this Times Square ad is clearly to get people to go to the NVIC website and drink deeply of the antivaccine misinformation therein, and it’s apparently been airing for nearly two weeks. It will also be airing on New Years Eve, and Jenny McCarthy will be promoting it on Dick Clark’s Rockin’ New Year’s Eve. At least, she plans to try.

Take a look at the the Facebook page of Age of Autism (screenshot sent to me by a reader, click to enlarge):

Yes, that’s Jenny McCarthy right there on Facebook promising to try to mention the NVIC ad on Dick Clark’s New Year’s Rockin’ Eve. So much for my wondering if she had faded away from direct involvement with the antivaccine group Generation Rescue. Of course, the yearly New Year’s Eve special on ABC is intended to be entertainment and nothing more. If Jenny actually does mention the NVIC ad on air, it would be quite jarring and out of sync with the rest of the show, which generally eschews causes, politics, or any sort of controversy whatsoever. My guess is that the producers would probably not approve.

Maybe they should get a copy of that screenshot, along with an explanation as to why the NVIC’s message is harmful. ABC’s contact page is here.

In addition, as usual, Elyse Anders has other suggestions as well. First, there’s a petition. And then there are these suggestions:

Tweet @DisneyChannelPR using #ABCsSickNYE. You can copy/paste one of these or write your own:

I resolve to end deadly anti-vaccine propaganda. @DisneyChannelPR Pull NVIC’s anti-vax Times Square ad #ABCsSickNYE

Whooping cough is on the rise thanks to things like NVIC advertising on @DisneyChannelPR screens in NYC. #ABCsSickNYE

Don’t forget to tell them what you’ll be doing instead of tuning into ABC for Dick Clark’s New Year’s Rockin’ Eve featuring the NVIC ad in the background. (And starring Jenny McCarthy… for real.)

Sounds like a plan to me. No doubt the NVIC will view any campaign to prevent the distribution of its propaganda on ABC as “suppressing” its free speech, but in reality it’s just an opposing viewpoint trying to inform a major network that promoting antivaccine views is not a good thing.

Who knows if it will work, but we’ll never know if we don’t try.

Posted in: Science and the Media, Vaccines

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