Few American companies are as skilled at reaching out and touching their customer base as Walt Disney Co., which will be ramping up its publicity machine to a very high engine speed over the next few months. The marketing surge for Disneyland's 60th anniversary is already underway; recent news stories about the "amazing" new parade and fireworks show that will launch the celebration at the Anaheim park on May 22 are only the beginning.
But something seems to be missing from the PR plans: a unifying, public-spirited theme. Our suggestion for the appropriate theme is "Vaccinate your kids."
Imagine the impact if that message were communicated by Mickey Mouse and his cohort, backed up by the parent company's world-beating marketing pizazz. Here's wagering that the campaign could reduce the ratio of unvaccinated children in California kindergartens by a percentage point, no small feat.
Even better, all of California's theme parks could join together--not only Disneyland, but Knott's Berry Farm, Legoland and NBC's Universal Studios Hollywood would make a good start.
We've reached out to all of them, but haven't formally heard back. As they respond, we'll update this post. The parks may be wary of confronting the anti-vaccination movement, which is driven by ferocious ideologues.
But there's solid logic behind asking Disneyland and its fellows to mount a pro-vaccination campaign. Families with children, albeit of different ages, are the target market for all the parks. (Here's a pitch by Legoland, which probably skews youngest of all, for birthday parties for school-age youngsters.) Disney has sponsored public service messages on its TV networks in the past, notably as part of Michelle Obama's campaign against childhood obesity in 2010, in which NBCUniversal also participated. Childhood vaccination is certainly a public health issue on the same scale.
The parks are all venues where vaccinated and unvaccinated children and other individuals come together. They're veritable seedbeds for infectious diseases, especially those that are contagious before symptoms appear, like measles.
Nor is this speculation, as we know from Disneyland's role--unwitting, to be sure--in the current nationwide measles outbreak. The latest report from the California Department of Public Health places the total number of confirmed cases in the state at 91, of which 58 are linked to Disneyland, including 40 patients who are presumed to have been exposed as visitors or employees at the park itself, and 18 who were secondary or tertiary exposures (that is, exposed to a visitor or employee, or to someone exposed to someone exposed, etc.).
In fact, the public attention devoted to the latest outbreak demonstrates the incredible power of the Disney name: there wouldn't be a fraction of the awareness of the ongoing spread of measles had it not been associated with the iconic theme park.
The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates the outbreak at 102 cases in 14 states, though this appears to use an outdated figure for California. The CDC leaves no doubt that the prime driver of the outbreak is the proliferation of pockets of low-vaccination rates--"schools and school districts where things are a problem," according to Anne Schuchat, director of the CDC's National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases. That reflects a growing toleration of "personal belief" exemptions from childhood vaccinations. Last year, Schuchat said in a briefing last Thursday, "79% of the unvaccinated cases of measles in the U.S. were unvaccinated due to personal belief exceptions."
These are people with no rational grounds for avoiding vaccinations of themselves or their children--not medical or religious reasons, which are rare, but unreasoning faith in fraudulent or long-debunked challenges to the safety and efficacy of vaccines.
To date, the only family theme park that seems to have addressed the measles crisis is Disneyland, which issued a statement by Pamela Hymel, the chief medical officer of Walt Disney Parks and Resorts, detailing the efforts at Disneyland to deal with employees who may not have been vaccinated. Park workers who tested positive for measles or came in contact with those employees were placed on paid medical leave, Hymel says. Furthermore, "We are providing free vaccinations to all of our cast members and are actively encouraging them to receive a vaccination."
Although Hymel's statement incorporates an advisory from the state Department of Public Health, it deoesn't really count as a public information campaign, as opposed to an effort to assure customers that the park is safe.
If Disneyland and the other parks got together, they could do much to undermine the misinformation and sloppy thinking that infect the vaccination debate nationwide. The latest example comes from New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who unburdened himself Monday of the thought that "parents need to have some measure of choice" about immunizing their children and that government officials should strike a "balance."
Christie's remarks contradicted the law in his own state, which recognizes medical and religious exemptions from immunization but doesn't otherwise provide for parent "choice" or "personal belief" exemptions as do other states, including California.