A tense plucking violin kicks in. Then, quick flashes of eerie fall scenes appear — sinister jack-o’-lanterns on a ledge, a darkened forest with battered trees, footsteps wading through a thick bed of leaves. The imagery is punctuated by the staccato narration of rapper Ice-T.
“Some may think that I’m gone. But I’m still here. Biding my time,” he says menacingly.
At first glance, this might seem like a trailer for the latest horror flick. In reality, it’s the opening of Sanofi’s new national flu vaccine campaign, “The Season,” aimed at spreading awareness about the complications of the virus for older adults who are the target market for Sanofi’s two shots, Fluzone High-Dose Quadrivalent and Flublok Quadrivalent.
“In horror films, most of this genre involves a surprise somehow. You're at the edge of your seat and there's something either lurking, jumping out or hidden,” Dominika Kovacs, head of the adult vaccine business unit at Sanofi, said about the ad. “What we're trying to reveal is the hidden nature of the burden of the disease.”
Of the estimated 36,000 average annual flu deaths in the U.S., 70% to 85% occur in adults over 65. But sickness and death are far from the only concerns, Kovacs said. Older adults who contract the virus are also more likely to experience serious cardiovascular problems, according to the CDC.
One study found that 12.5% of people who were hospitalized with the flu experienced a cardiovascular event. Another revealed that adults over 65 who contract the flu have a three to five times increased risk of a heart attack and two to three times increased risk of a stroke in the first two weeks of the virus.
“We're trying to reveal this burden and say: ‘You're not just protecting against a few weeks of feeling sick with the flu, you're protecting against some [of these] serious complications,’” Kovacs said.
The ad is the latest in a string of star-studded flu campaigns from the pharma giant over the last few years, including one in 2022 featuring “Seinfeld” actor Jason Alexander and another in 2021 with “Dirty Dancing” lead Jennifer Grey, that have sought to bring greater attention to the virus even as COVID-19 dominated conversations.
"We're trying to reveal this burden and say: ‘You're not just protecting against a few weeks of feeling sick with the flu, you're protecting against some [of these] serious complications.'"
Head of the adult vaccine business unit, Sanofi
When trust in public health eroded during the pandemic, the number of people getting flu shots also took a dive — dropping 4.5% in states with below-average COVID vaccinations, according to one UCLA study. Last year’s flu season was one of the worst in over a decade, leading to 9 million cases, 10,000 hospitalizations, and 5,000 deaths. Still, over half of the population didn’t get vaccinated.
Ensuring that people understand the consequences of the virus is key to reversing these low vaccination rates, Kovacs said.
“What we believe is that the best protection possible is to maintain an immunization schedule,” Kovacs said. “And getting your flu immunization in the fall is part of a strong foundation in protection in helping protect against influenza.”
Shifting focus to underserved communities
Unlike campaigns from previous years, which leaned on light-hearted humor to show the flu’s ugly side effects, this year’s rendition takes a slightly darker approach to convey its severity.
Although a “little cheeky” and “in the season of fall,” Kovacs said the horror film-themed ad is meant to deliver the message that the flu isn’t something to mess around with and instead is like “a wolf in sheep’s clothing” — people might think it’s harmless, but it’s got a big bite.
Ice-T was a natural fit to narrate the commercial, as he’s known for his gravelly voice and edgy persona from his role on “Law and Order: Special Victims Unit,” and as a rapper from the early ‘90s.
“He's got such an iconic voice that I think many will immediately be familiar with, especially this older population that's probably grown up or seen him [during a] big part of their adult life,” Kovacs said.
Having turned 65 this year, Ice-T can also speak to groups disproportionately impacted by the virus who are being targeted by the Sanofi campaign.
While flu vaccination rates remain low across populations, they are particularly dismal in Black and brown communities. In the 2021-2022 flu season, for instance, only 42% of Black adults received a shot, compared to 54% of their white counterparts. Meanwhile, flu hospitalizations are estimated to be 80% higher among Black adults.
Some of the top reasons for the disparities include lack of access to healthcare and insurance, missed opportunities among providers to vaccinate, as well as misinformation and distrust.
By showing a well-known figure like Ice-T “being vulnerable” about the virus and addressing some of the stigmas around vaccination, Kovacs said she hopes this year’s ad will resonate more with Black viewers.
To help improve access, the campaign also includes a link to a site that allows patients to find locations where they can get the jab nearby. Last year, the site reportedly had over 1,500 visitors — just one indication the campaigns are working, Kovacs said.
“We know that individuals are starting to ask for flu vaccines by name,” Kovacs said. “That is a sign that we see that our message is getting to the consumer.”