The Propaganda Factory

The people who make television and movies are all-in on getting you vaccinated

I’m a member (barely) of the Writers Guild of America, the union that represents over 10,000 film and television writers - everyone from wealthy showrunners like J.J. Abrams to newbies getting their first job in a writers room.

The WGA has a tight grip on Hollywood. Big studios and production companies are WGA signatories, which means the union’s members write basically everything you watch on networks, HBO, Netflix, and in theaters.

If culture is a factory, WGA members are the line workers, sitting around conference tables to hash out the stories that help tell us who we are.

Which is why I took note when the WGA decided to hold a “Summit” on June 29th about “Educating Audiences on COVID-19 Vaccines.” The “host committee” included top screenwriters like Vince Gilligan, the creator of Breaking Bad.

Sanjay Gupta, CNN’s chief medical correspondent and a noted vaccine fanatic, led the discussion. Not surprisingly, the education had only one goal: “to inspire more confidence in the COVID-19 vaccines.”

The summit was part of a larger effort from the Ad Council, which creates “public service announcements,” and a group called the “COVID Collaborative,” which is dedicated to the proposition that COVID is an ongoing threat and vaccines are the answer. The Collaborative is itself a unit of the not-at-all Orwellian-sounding “Office of American Possibilities.” Founded in April, the the OAP features a Web page thick with Newspeak and short on basic information - like, say, who is funding it.

Nonetheless, the Collaborative and Ad Council are not short on cash for their efforts. The Ad Council has raised almost $150 million from companies like CVS and Walgreen (both of which profit from giving vaccine shots). Its COVID PSAs have been viewed 10 billion times since March - 30 views for every American.

Nonetheless, despite the marketing campaign, increasingly overt governmental and corporate pressure, and cash incentives like lotteries, vaccine acceptance in the United States have flatlined since May. Fewer than 1 in 1,000 Americans are now receiving their first vaccine dose each day, and the number continues to drop.

So vaccine advocates are now preparing a long campaign to convince or force holdouts to accept vaccinations. They also want to convince those who have been already vaccinated to accept booster shots, which now appear likely to be necessary, perhaps as early as the fall.

And with television and film production back up to speed, writers will be part of the effort. That Hollywood leans hard left is no secret; I was in Los Angeles for meetings with producers the morning after Donald Trump upset Hillary Clinton, and the sense of devastation was palpable. One executive postponed her meeting until later in the week; she simply couldn’t come to work that Wednesday.

So the writers were looking for secrets to help convince the hesitant. And they had the benefit of polls and focus groups that government and private groups have run to help get inside the minds of those pesky folks. (Intriguingly, the speed at which the vaccines were developed and approved appears to be the biggest problem of all - as it should.)

Sadly, the hosts had no magic bullets. They shared the sad news that most young Americans know they are at basically no risk of dying from COVID and can’t be frightened that way. Instead, they suggested highlighting “long Covid" and symptoms such as loss of taste to scare the younguns.

But how to dramatize “long Covid” or the “journey suggestions”? John August, the screenwriter of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, threw out a couple hoary suggestions: show, don’t tell.

Writing a cop show? A vaccination certificate can be a useful alibi! How about a legal drama? Maybe the bad guy can lie about being vaccinated! (Or, better, the good guy lies, BECAUSE HE’S ASHAMED, see, but he learns to trust the science!)

Stories, not lectures!

I can’t wait.