By Helen Stead

“If thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought”—George Orwell, On Politics and the English Language

Say it enough times, they will believe it is true:

Safe and effective. It’s a phrase repeated ad nauseum in sponsored advertisements, on
mainstream news, and by health agencies all over the world. It’s a phrase synonymous with
pharmaceutical drugs, but particularly with vaccines. Breathing the words safe and effective next
to vaccines appeared as early as 1916 in The British Medical Journal in a study that attempted to
make “a Safe and Effective Bacillus Dysenteriae (Shiga) Vaccine.” But it wasn’t really deployed
in advertising until the last decade when researchers found that vaccine-hesitant people “are
unlikely to be swayed by any amount of evidence” and the best tact would be to “refocus
attention” on the positives of vaccines (Schwartz, 2012, pp 53). This basic mantra of safe and
has been parroted so frequently, it has capitalized on a phenomenon known as the
illusory truth effect, which establishes the illusion of truth—this studied phenomenon occurs
when people are exposed to the same information repeatedly, and they believe it to be true, even
if the information is a lie (Hasher, Goldstein & Toppino, 1977).

Use pushy tactics on parents and repeat… repeat what is good…good:

A small study in Pediatrics evaluated the vaccine discussion with parents and found that
providers who took a presumptive approach, i.e., “Johnny needs three vaccines today” rather
than inviting a participatory approach, i.e., “Would you like Johnny to have vaccines today?”
were able to convince parents to vaccinate at 74 percent versus four percent acceptance (Opel et
al., 2013). And when some vaccine-hesitant parents voiced initial resistance, providers incessant
with their recommendation, i.e., “Johnny really needs his shots,” or “If he were my child, I
would get them” were able to get acceptance from previous vaccine refusers 47 percent of the
time. The authors comment in their discussion that “shared decision-making is typically not
indicated when there is only one medically acceptable choice,” although they do admit that this
is a value-laden decision and that many pediatricians will have to balance this out. While this
study evaluates linguistic opportunities for doctors recommending the vaccine schedule, it also
promotes rail-roading parents into unwanted medical procedures, which is at best unethical, and
at worst an abuse of power.

This kind of medical coercion is also recommended by the CDC on its YouTube channel,
encouraging presumptive language and squawking vaccine mantras. Dr. Tolu Adebanjo
shows providers how she iterates to parents that “vaccines are safe and effective, and they’re
held to high safety standards. [She] also tell[s] parents that there’s no evidence to suggest that
vaccines have any long-term harm, and that the risk of getting the disease if [the child is] not
vaccinated, far outweigh any risk of the vaccine itself” (CDC, 2019). And unfortunately, these
blanket statements neglect evidence that suggests some vaccines do have serious long-term
effects to some children, a plethora of which can be seen in the CDC’s own Vaccine Adverse
Event Reporting System (VAERS). The video continues with a chilling warning: “by not

vaccinating their child, they actually put their child at risk for possible infection and long-term
harm in the future.” Parents are all too familiar with these kinds of discussions with pediatricians
and are often coerced to sign forms (template provided by the American Academy of Pediatrics) 1
accepting responsibility for willfully endangering their child and others by not vaccinating.

Hire specialists for language manipulation, repeat ad nauseum:

The CDC isn’t the only one interested in what it takes to persuade vaccine-hesitant
consumers—in December of 2020, Frank Luntz, well-known political pollster, assisted the Biden
administration to find out what words would sell Covid vaccines to the American people (Dima,
2021). Luntz often uses focus groups to narrow down favored language, and is responsible for
politicians changing key phrases like estate tax to death tax and global warming to climate
(Curran, 2019).

For the Covid vaccines, Luntz surveyed 1,400 registered voters and found they favored medical
over drug companies, and a transparent, rigorous process instead of how much
, and number of participants, and using and repeating “the word ‘every’ to explain the
vaccine development process: for example, ‘every study, every phase, and every trial was
reviewed by the FDA and a safety board’” (de Beaumont, 2020). Little tweaks here and there
that seem pretty innocent, but have a profound impact on how the public perceives vaccines, and
represent a stark contrast from reality. Do drug companies research their own products? Was it
really a transparent process? It’s interesting to note that out of those polled in December of 2020,
only 56 percent (de Beaumont, 2020) said they thought Covid vaccines were safe, and almost
two years later, there has been a 79 percent uptake of one dose according to The New York
. It would appear the messaging was successful. But it turns out Luntz isn’t entirely neutral
in the vaccine game as Pfizer is listed among his clients on the Luntz Global website, which
could impact survey questions, their premises and how they may or may not reflect truth in the
final messaging.

Mix science and propaganda until everyone forgets what is what:

The conflation of truth and persuasive messaging for vaccinations isn’t new; in an article
published in The Lancet in 1938, Dr. Okell, an expert in infectious diseases, describes the state of
vaccinology at the time as a marriage between science and propaganda: “The immunization of
the masses has been undertaken with almost a religious fervor…Without propaganda there can,
of course, be no large-scale immunization, but how perilous it is to mix up propaganda with
scientific fact. If we baldly [in plain or basic language] told the whole truth it is doubtful whether
the public would submit to immunization” (qtd. in Humpries & Bystrianyk, 2015, pp. 450-451).
And there lies the rub—if parents are given full informed consent, knowing all the potential risk
as well as the coercive techniques employed to achieve vaccine compliance, would we have a
childhood vaccine program?

Afterall, in an interview on PBS Frontline, Luntz is asked about whether he is responsible for the
messaging he gathers from his research to which Luntz replies, “No, because I’m a language
guy; I’m not a policy guy. I know that my responsibility is to learn how to communicate, and I
leave to others the decision of policy.” 2 But in order to make sound policy decisions, the truth

(not just favored words) must be communicated. And if vaccines have risk, parents should be
informed about those risks and they should be able to have honest, collaborative discussions with
their doctors, not talked down to as if they are dolts worthy of a CPS call. The words we choose
to talk about this are everything. The masses are immersed in the trance of the illusory truth
effect, and we must adapt our language to wake them.


American Academy of Pediatrics. (2021, July 28). Administering immunizations in your practice: Refusal to vaccinate.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). (2019, July 30). Addressing Parents’ Vaccine Safety Concerns: Pediatrician Tolu Adebanjo [Video]. YouTube.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). (2022, Sept. 8). Vaccine Adverse Events Reporting System (VAERS).

Curran, E. (2019, Aug. 5). Messaging guru offers list of words to use and avoid to build support for climate solutions. Resilience.

de Beaumont Foundation. (2020, Dec.). New poll reveals most effective language to improve Covid-19 vaccine acceptance. de Beaumont.

Dima, J. (2021, July 14). ‘I don’t care’: Frank Luntz unphased by criticism for helping Biden fight virus. Yahoo News.

Hasher, L., Goldstein, D., & Toppino, T. (1977). Frequency and the conference of referential validity. Journal of Verbal Learning and Verbal Behavior, 16(1), 107–112.

Humphries, S., and Bystrianyk, R. (2015). Dissolving Illusions: Disease, Vaccines, and the Forgotten History. Print.

Luntz Global. (n.d.) Corporate Clients. The New York Times. (2022, Sept. 15). See how vaccinations are going in your county and state.

Opel, D.J., Heritage, J., Taylor, J.A., Mangione-Smith, R., Salas, H.S., Devere, V., Zhou C., & Robinson J.D. (2013) The architecture of provider-parent vaccine discussions at health supervision visits. Pediatrics. 2013 Dec;132(6):1037-46. doi: 10.1542/peds.2013-2037.

Epub 2013 Nov 4. PMID: 24190677; PMCID: PMC3838535. PBS Frontline (2006, Nov. 13). Frontline politics: Hot interviews Frank Luntz. PBS.

Schwartz, J. (2012) New media, old messages: Themes in the history of vaccine hesitancy and refusal. American Medical Association Journal of Ethics, 14(1), 50-55.

Thomson J.D., Attempts to produce a safe and effective Bacillus Dysenteriae (Shiga) vaccine for prophylactic purposes. The British Medical Journal. 1916 Feb 26;1(2878):303-5. doi: 10.1136/bmj.1.2878.303. PMID: 20768027; PMCID: PMC2347237.