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How Two Companies Accidentally Committed Anti-Vaccine PR Blunders

Casey Kelly-Barton
April 16, 2014

Measles in Manhattan, mumps in Ohio, and whooping cough in San Diego have been making the news over the past month, with at least five outbreaks of vaccine-preventable diseases under way now around the U.S. Health officials are blaming low vaccination rates, and many states that allow parents to opt out of vaccines for reasons other than health conditions are starting to reconsider those exemptions.

Oregon and Washington, both sites of recent measles outbreaks, have adopted stricter rules for vaccine exemptions to try to get the public-health problem under control. Colorado's state senate held hearings last week on a bill that would require parents who want a non-medical exemption to first take an online course about the pros and cons of childhood vaccines. The bill passed the state house in March with bipartisan support.

Public health issues can dent a company's public image

As people start to see the results of not vaccinating, the tide is turning in the debate over vaccine safety, and businesses concerned with their public image need to take notice. Associating with anti-vaccination groups can lead to the kind of press that businesses and brands would much rather avoid.

Brinker International (NYSE: EAT) brand Chili's found this out the hard way this month. The restaurant chain had planned to donate a percentage of April 7's sales to the National Autism Association as part of Autism Awareness Month. Sounds good, right? Diagnosis of autism-spectrum disorders has been on the rise for years, and there's a definite need for more research and better support.

But Chili's got burned when media outlets pointed out that the NAA has a history of claiming that vaccinations can cause or worsen autism—a claim that's been thoroughly and repeatedly discredited by researchers. Chili's ended up canceling the fundraiser the day before it was scheduled, but not before ending up all over the news for its misstep.

Expect more push-back going forward

The Chili's fundraiser isn't the only instance of push-back this year. On April 2, Facebook (NASDAQ: FB) users and Raw Story took the social media platform to task for marking World Autism Awareness Day with a post by celebrity vaccine critic Jenny McCarthy. And for five days last month, McCarthy found her Twitter feed flooded with pro-vaccination tweets after asking followers what they look for in an ideal mate. That blowback,