Publicis Groupe, a multinational public relations firm, last week launched a provocative advertising campaign — under the slogan “HPV Fucks Everybody” — designed to persuade Gen Zers to get the human papillomavirus, or HPV, vaccine. Critics called the campaign “dangerous.”
A multinational public relations firm last week launched a provocative advertising campaign — under the slogan “HPV Fucks Everybody” — designed to persuade Gen Zers to get the human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine.
The PR firm, Publicis Groupe, launched the campaign in collaboration with the nonprofit Fuck Cancer. The campaign doesn’t name a specific HPV vaccine brand name. However, Merck’s Gardasil vaccine is the only HPV vaccine brand distributed in the U.S., and Merck is a client of Publicis Groupe.
When asked if Merck was funding the campaign, a spokesperson for Fuck Cancer told The Defender, “This campaign has no connection with Merck and is a collaboration between Publicis Health Media and Fuck Cancer (a non profit). Please note that we are promoting a vaccine that is safe and saves lives.”
There are currently 80 cases pending in federal court against Merck alleging Gardasil caused injuries and the federal Vaccine Court has paid out more than $70 million to people making claims regarding Gardasil.
The National Institutes of Health (NIH), also a Publicis client, developed the HPV vaccine technology, which it licenses, in the U.S., exclusively to Merck.
In addition to Merck and the NIH, other Publicis Groupe clients include the World Economic Forum (WEF), pharmaceutical giants including Pfizer, GSK, AstraZeneca, Johnson & Johnson, Purdue Pharma and several pharmacy chains that administer the HPV vaccines, including Walmart, Rite Aid and CVS Health (owners of Target pharmacies and clinics).
Campaign ‘uses sex to sell its case’
The new campaign targets young adults directly through a series of ads featuring “diverse, sexy images” and edgy music, accompanying the message that it doesn’t matter who you are, you are at risk because “HPV Fucks Everybody.”
Photos of a black couple, a white couple and a furry couple kissing, and a multiracial group of young people partying are featured on the website and will be featured in the ads.
The images are accompanied by lines like, “Stop the spread. Get the shot. Keep doing you,” according to “Pharma & Health Insider” — a PR site that publishes promotional stories with a news-like appearance.
HPV transmission is likely to occur via sex, the PR story said, so the campaign “uses sex to sell its case.”
“Targeting all 18–26-year-olds who are sexually active (or who want to be), the campaign behaves just like its audience: honest, bold and unbounded by tradition,” said Alison McConnell, chief marketing officer at Publicis Health Media — one of Publicis’ “solution hubs.”
Michelle Stiles, author of “One Idea To Rule Them All: Reverse Engineering American Propaganda,” told The Defender that campaigns run by elite global PR firms may appear absurd to a skeptical observer, but they have tremendous power to shape global public health agendas.
“The trendy and provocative messaging targeting sexually active youth for yet another vaccination campaign should hopefully be met with ample amounts of skepticism or outright laughter for those who paid attention during the previous rollout of the COVID-19 shots.
“Unfortunately, these million-dollar campaigns are extremely dangerous because they are so effective.”
Ben Mallory, executive vice president/creative director for Digitas Health, another Publicis subsidiary collaborating on the campaign, said the campaign is designed to inform young people that they will be infected with HPV, that such infection will be risky and that vaccination is the answer.
“For a generation that doesn’t discriminate, it’s important they realize that HPV doesn’t either,” he said. “That’s what the campaign communications [sic]: It doesn’t matter who you are or what you’re into, if you’re not vaccinated, you’re at risk.”
Trying to reach ‘largest and most influential generation’
An audio campaign will follow, along with advertising in “points-of-care,” which can include clinics or pharmacies.
On the campaign’s website, people can also sign up to “get the shot” at major retail pharmacies including Walgreens, CVS, Rite Aid, Walmart, Target and Kroger — companies Publicis Groupe also represents.
McConnell, Publicis’ marketing director for the campaign, said they are trying to reach Gen Z because it is “the largest and most influential generation.”
That makes this campaign different from most previous HPV vaccination PR campaigns that targeted parents.
This shift in focus reflects recent shifts in direct advertising by Gardasil maker Merck.
Merck’s early ads targeted parents of adolescents, but in 2022 they shifted gears and started targeting parents of young children with ads like this one, which appeals to parents of the older elementary school children.
These ads focused on marketing the vaccine as “cancer prevention” rather than as acting on a sexually transmitted disease, a strategy the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) promoted to encourage more young people to get vaccinated.
Last year, Merck expanded its advertising campaign to target adults through age 45, in commercials like this one, marketing the vaccine as protecting against a long list of cancers.
Merck has invested heavily in shaping the market since the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved the drug in 2006. In October, it announced that its 2023 third-quarter Gardasil sales grew 13% to $2.6 billion.
Fact-checking the campaign’s claims
The campaign sample ad and its website, which provide no citations, make many misleading or erroneous claims.
The campaign’s approach appears to be rooted in the “fear-based” or “fear-appealing” messaging designed to “nudge” people into getting vaccinated, commonly utilized during the COVID-19 pandemic and in global public health more generally.
According to the CDC, HPV is the most common sexually transmitted infection in the U.S. and the majority of sexually active people will get it at some point in their lives, even if they have only one or very few sexual partners.
But the vast majority of HPV infections are cleared by the immune system and less than 10% of infections are linked to any clinical symptoms. Clinical symptoms can include a variety of warts and cervical dysplasia, which may be benign or precancerous.
Yet the campaign website claims, “HPV turns into cancer about 10% of the time,” a claim public health agencies don’t make.
There are over 200 strains of the HPV virus, a subset of which are deemed “high-risk.” HPV can cause genital warts and some strains have been associated with some types of cancer. However, HPV is not the sole risk factor for any cancer, and cancers associated with HPV can also sometimes develop without the presence of the virus.
Methods like regular pap screening are highly effective and have been found to reduce the incidence and mortality of cervical cancer among women by at least 80%.
But the sample ad on the site presents HPV as something always scary and dangerous.
“HPV Fucks Everybody. In fact, there are more than 14 million new HPV infections in the US each year, because HPV doesn’t discriminate. It doesn’t care who you are, what you look like who you love or what you’re into. HPV will infect more than 85% of sexually active people of all races, ethnicities and genders. It can lead to genital warts, or worse, over ten types of cancer. So it doesn’t matter if your status is single, committed, or complicated. It doesn’t even matter if you’re not currently sexually active.”
The website also claims the HPV vaccine can prevent a whopping 33,700 types of HPV-related cancers. Even Gardasil 9’s package insert and the CDC website only indicate the HPV vaccine for some cancers of the cervix, vagina, vulva, penis, anus and back of the throat with the HPV virus.
The campaign also repeats Merck’s claims that the vaccine is “safe and effective” and that the side effects are “mild.”
But a series of ongoing lawsuits against Merck allege the drugmaker fast-tracked Gardasil through the FDA’s approval process and deceptively conducted clinical trials to mask serious side effects and exaggerate the vaccine’s effectiveness.
Some of the signature impacts observed following HPV vaccination in thousands of adverse events reports worldwide include permanently disabling autoimmune and neurological conditions such as postural orthostatic tachycardia syndrome, fibromyalgia and myalgic encephalomyelitis/chronic fatigue syndrome.
Finally, the campaign promises that getting vaccinated can “put an end to HPV. For you, for us, for them. For everyone.”
However, the Gardasil 9 vaccine is designed only to suppress nine of the over 200 strains of HPV, and recent research has shown that when the HPV vaccine suppresses certain types of “high-risk” HPV strains, those strains are replaced with other strains associated with some cancers.
While the World Health Organization has launched a global campaign to eradicate cervical cancer as a public health threat, it has not indicated a similar project for HPV.
Publicis is part of ‘the propaganda arm of the global elite’
The campaign is spearheaded by Publicis Health Media and Digitas Health, which are both part of Publicis, along with Fuck Cancer.
According to the campaign publicity, Publicis Health Media is particularly concerned with HPV because the company CEO Arthur Sadoun was diagnosed and treated for HPV-associated cancer.
Last year, the company published a holiday video where board chair Maurice Lévy and Sadoun were joined by actor Michael Douglas, who was diagnosed and treated with throat cancer a decade ago, to promote the HPV vaccine and the Publicis Groupe.
As part of its cancer marketing focus, Publicis Groupe launched its Working with Cancer initiative, at the WEF. In partnership with 30 of the largest global companies, including Pfizer, Sanofi, PepsiCola, Meta and others, the campaign seeks to “abolish the stigma and insecurity that exist for people with cancer in the workplace,” according to the campaign website.
During Super Bowl LVII in February, it ran a commercial about the campaign that won a Gold Lion from the Health & Wellness jury at the 2023 Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity in June.
Publicis Groupe is an ad holding company, which recently rebranded “for the connected age” itself as a “platform,” according to its website.
As Stiles details in her book, just a few such companies — including Publicis, Omnicom, WPP and Interpublic Group — dominate the global media landscape.
Each ad-holding company has billions of dollars in revenue and serves thousands of corporate clients along with universities, nonprofits and governmental and nongovernmental organizations.
As public relations firms, they design ad campaigns and they develop and strategically place print and broadcast media content in mainstream news and PR publications for their clients. They also create public relations campaigns like those described here to develop, promote and defend the reputations of their clients.
Other tactics include flooding the media landscape with spin, developing talking points for “experts” to use in public appearances and generally “using underhanded tactics to promote and defend their clients,” Ecowatch reported.
According to Stiles, an estimated two-thirds to 80% of the content broadcast and published by corporate media comes from public relations firms.
“There is no doubt that the top three PR holding firms WPP, Omnicom, and Publicis, whose collective revenue is over 44 billion, function and should be thought of as the propaganda arm of the global elite.
“The finely-tuned, targeted messages not only create revenue for the transnational capitalist class but just as importantly define the global problems to be solved and the way in which they should be solved, leaving very little room for other creative options.”
Each agency has smaller subsidiaries and PR affiliates under the same corporate ownership, creating the appearance that there are more players in the media field than there actually are. More recently, they have also begun to “gobble up” data companies.
For example, in this campaign, two of three collaborators are part of the Publicis Groupe.
The public relations site Pharma & Health, where one of the “stories” about the “HPV Fucks Everybody” campaign was posted by MediaPost Inc., a marketing company that posts up to 50 different industry blogs.
“Adding together the global revenue of the top 250 independent PR firms ($17 billion) with the PR holding companies ($44 billion) and we are literally swimming in marketing messages intended to consolidate capital for the mega-corporations,” Stiles said.
“The medical messaging repeatedly advises us to outsource health and wellness to drugs or vaccines, poor choices indeed,” she added.
A Defender investigation into Publicis’ clients last year, found it serves a wide range of corporate, governmental and supra-governmental agencies including the WEF and U.S. government agencies like the National Security Agency, tech giants like Google, Amazon, Disney, Microsoft and Meta, and corporate clients PepsiCo, Phillip Morris and Saudi Aramco.
Publicis Groupe was implicated in the “Monsanto File” scandal, where the company was found to be using Publicis Consultants and FleishmanHillard, an Omnicom subsidiary, to launch a PR offensive to rehabilitate the image of genetically modified organisms and pesticides.
Newsguard, a for-profit fact-checking organization backed by Big Pharma, Big Tech, the U.S. government and the American Federation of Teachers — a staunch advocate of mandatory COVID-19 vaccination and masks for schoolchildren — is also a client.
So is the Center for Countering Digital Hate (CCDH), a politically driven service consistently attacking anyone who raises questions about vaccine efficacy or safety, and the organization responsible for creating the so-called “Disinformation Dozen” list.Suggest a correction