Off Brand

Why Are We Picking Vaccines Like They’re Toothpastes?

An angsty public is turning the Pfizer, Moderna, and Johnson & Johnson vaccines into a dangerous brand battleground

Rob Walker
Published in
5 min readMar 11, 2021


A photo illustration featuring a shopping basket filled with vials of Covid-19 vaccines and shots.
Photo Illustration: Save As/Medium; Source: Getty Images

Worldwide, there are 11 vaccines available to combat Covid-19. And according to some observers, this has led to a problem: “People are doing what they do with cars and peanut butter and Tinder profiles — comparison shopping,” an On the Media segment this weekend declared. Host Bob Garfield noted that among his friends and family in Serbia, where people apparently have access to options from Pfizer, Moderna, and AstraZeneca as well as Chinese and Russian vaccines, some choices have more “status” than others. “It’s conspicuous vaccine consumption,” he said.

Similar thoughts have been burbling around social media, suggesting “people are angsty about the vaccines because they’ve been presented as consumer products,” leading to a process that is “like choosing a brand of shampoo or salad dressing.” This in turn is leaving “ordinary people … parsing the different vaccine brands,” as one tweet phrased it, in stark contrast to the boring vaccinations of the past, whose makers we could seldom even name.

Well yeah, it’s obviously true that the current vaccine scenario is like no other in our lifetimes: In response to a worldwide pandemic that has killed millions, multiple pharmaceutical and biotech companies developed lifesaving responses much faster than anyone believed possible. We live in a time of tragedy and miraculousness; things are chaotic and fluid. So obviously that’s more complicated than your annual flu shot — much less your choice of peanut butter — and a little “parsing” seems not so much surprising as practically unavoidable.

But on the other hand, no, it’s not as if that parsing is being driven by clever packaging or ad campaigns; the drug makers aren’t relying on influencer strategies or limited-edition merch promotions. In stark contrast to, say, the shampoo…