What can Elmo teach us about COVID Vaccine Hesitancy?

Amitha Kalaichandran
5 min readDec 20, 2020

Can a key factor driving consumer demand be enough to override irrational fears?

Amitha Kalaichandran, M.D.

December 20, 2020

Twenty-four years ago, on Black Friday in November 1996, hundreds of thousands of Americans stood eagerly in line for hours at Walmarts, and Kmarts around the country. Some even camped outside. Once doors opened, mass hysteria ensued. People were trampled. Punches were flung in fights that led to arrests. In the streets some ran frantically after delivery trucks. There were bomb threats. There was even a rumor that the infamous Gotti family tried to get in on the action.

All for a bright red furry creature with large bug eyes and a fuzzy egg-shaped orange nose. For Elmo. But not just any Elmo: an Elmo that could be tickled. When Tyco manufactured its Tickle Me Elmo no one could have predicted the demand. So, a scarcity situation emerged — only a few hundred thousand were manufactured ahead of Christmas. This scarcity caused irrational behavior. With a ramping up of manufacturing, a total of over one million were sold in 1996. Five times more were sold the following year. Then, after interest waned, demand waned.

The effect of scarcity is so effective that in Robert Cialdini’s seminal marketing book, Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion, it’s described as a tactic that can significantly alter behavior. Essentially ,when a resource is scarce, consumers want it even more. Cialdini cites the psychologist, Jack Brehme’s, theory:

“Whenever free choice is limited or threatened, the need to retain our freedoms makes us desire them (as well as the goods and services associated with them) significantly more than previously. So when increasing scarcity — or anything else — interferes with our prior access to some item, we will react against the interference by wanting and trying to possess the item more than before.”

This holiday season we don’t have Elmo. Instead we have two potential COVID vaccines, with one (by Pfizer/BioNTech) already being rolled out in the U.K. Demand for the vaccine this side of the pond, is bubbling (can you feel it?). Why? Because there has been enough in the Zietgiest around distributive justice: in other words, the fair allocation of the…

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Amitha Kalaichandran

A physician, epidemiologist, medical journalist, and health tech consultant with an interest in the intersection of integrative medicine and innovation.