I walk out of the Javits Center wearing my vaccine sticker like a medal. People are looking at me, I think, passers-by in Hudson Yards, the barista at O Café, the cashier at the Container Store. “Mind if I ask where you got your vaccine?” asks the latter, with a nod to the sticker on my lapel. “Javits Center,” I say, “have you had any luck?” He tells me he’s been struggling to get an appointment, and when I tell him to just call the helpline, his face lights up. That night, bolstered by this encounter, I post a selfie with my sticker on my Instagram story, then I update my Facebook profile picture with a badge. “Let’s get vaccinated,” it reads, “we can do this.”
On December 11, 2020, the FDA issued emergency use authorization for the first Covid-19 vaccine. Since then, complications like misinformation, vaccine hesitancy, and mistrust in the medical system have necessitated a slew of public health messaging campaigns—from the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, individual states, and organizations like the CDC or the WHO—to educate people about and increase public confidence in the now three vaccines authorized in the U.S.
Driven by communication science, these campaigns provide resources, tailored information for at-risk groups, and toolkits to help the public make informed decisions about their health. Deep in those toolkits lies the humble vaccine sticker. Whether you stick it on your jacket or slap it on your Instagram story, the sticker—and its virtual counterpart—has become a powerful insignia and a point of pride for the just-vaccinated.
Polls show that about 30 percent of the U.S. population is still reluctant to be vaccinated, which has made vaccine hesitancy one of the main impediments to reaching herd immunity. And although a small adhesive strip may not seem the likeliest candidate to change people’s mind, it has been proven that similar accessories, like the “I Voted” stickers, hold a lot of power for their size. Some research suggests that many of us vote so we can tell others we voted, and we don’t want to lie about it if we didn’t. As such, “I Voted” stickers can act as a gentle social pressure tool, reminding people who may have forgotten to vote. More than that, they can also make people feel guilty for not even planning to do it.
In the same vein, the vaccine sticker has become a similar wearable—part-boasting, part public shaming—for people to flaunt on the street and post on social media. “Got my 2021 version of an ‘I Voted’ sticker,” reads one recent tweet. “Pretty rooting tooting proud and pleased to be sporting my vaccination sticker!!” reads another.
Last month, the California Department of Public Health and Governor Gavin Newson’s office tapped design entrepreneur Yves Behar, and his industrial design and brand development firm fuseproject, to design a new public health campaign for Californians. Sporting a playful design, a diverse color palette, and messages in five different languages—English, Spanish, Chinese, Tagalog, and Vietnamese—the “Immunity Together” campaign was designed to inspire confidence and encourage a call-to-action through positive messaging. Naturally, it includes its very own vaccine sticker.
“The design uses recognizable elements,” says Behar of the stickers. The brief from Governor Gavin Newson’s office was relatively straightforward: bring people together and celebrate the moment without using words like “shot,” or “jab,” or “things that have a reference to weapons.” Featuring two band aids that cross and fold to create a heart symbol, the design plays on the notion of togetherness. The language brings together notions of “immunity” and “community” into a statement that focuses on the end-result—“Immunity Together”—not the action itself.
The campaign, which is part of California’s larger campaign “Vaccinate all 58,” joins a nation-wide endeavor to increase the uptake of Covid-19 vaccines. In December, the CDC launched a vaccine communication toolkit for healthcare providers to promote vaccination among other healthcare providers. Some stickers sport a simple “I GOT MY COVID-19 VACCINE” slogan. Others are a bit more complex in their ideation: a woman, wearing a mask and a Band Aid on her arm, flexing her bicep a la Rosie the Riveter. The slogan reads: “#SLEEVEUP TO FIGHT AGAINST COVID-19.”
Five months into the vaccine rollout, and visual assets abound. Hospitals have created their own custom stickers. CVS, Walgreens, the Javits Center, all have their own branded versions. Many feature band aid shapes and motivational hashtags. One, from the Duplin County Health Department Kenansville, North Carolina, even includes the spiked protein of Covid-19, intersected by a red forbidden sign.
And it isn’t just physical stickers. Building on the scientifically-proven influential effects of social media, Facebook launched new vaccination stickers on WhatsApp and Instagram. In April, WhatsApp also added its own stickers, created in collaboration with the WHO. Even Telegram, the Russian messaging app, boasts a selection of stickers promoting Russia’s Sputnik V Vaccine: one of them illustrates two cheery vials high-fiving, the other has them sitting under a parasol on the beach.
All of this begs the question: have stickers transcended the public service realm and entered the shallow kingdom of social media brags? And if they have, is that such a bad thing? Information today travels digitally, during a pandemic more so than ever, so the act of wearing a sticker on the street, wearing a sticker on an Instagram selfie, or sending a sticker on Whatsapp all sends the same message. Be it analog or digital, the vaccination sticker reflects the choices we have made and the values we hold.
“Showing off and belonging go hand in hand,” Behar tells me. “As far as I can remember, stickers I would get from bands, fashion, and people that I like were all about displaying my colors, what tribe I’m a part of.” With vaccine stickers, then, you wear your values (quite literally) as a badge. It’s a small, but traveling piece of communication design, on the street and on social media, that’s meant to influence people’s behavior in the name of public health—and there’s a long history of posters and other graphics playing this role. In some ways, the fact that we are the carriers, ambassadors even, for these messages is perfectly suited to the era of social media.
And here I thought I could never be an influencer…