I hope we can all agree that “vaccine culture” is a bit depressing. The idea of wearing an evening gown to a COVID-19-vaccine appointment is objectively sad, and speaking from personal experience, taking an hour-long bus ride to a CVS at the dead center of Staten Island, New York, for medical treatment is not fun or exciting except by dramatic contrast to events prior.
And when vaccine culture isn’t dismal, it can get extremely weird. At the moment, the internet is full of jokes about all the things you still can’t do after you’ve gotten vaccinated—like taking my hand and dragging me headfirst, which is part of a Taylor Swift song from 2008; removing the green ribbon from around your neck, a reference to a disturbing children’s story in which a woman named Jenny does that and then her head falls off; or emerging “from the soil after 17 years to shed your outer cuticular layer & scream into the ether in unison,” which is a subtweet of cicadas. I’m laughing, but what are we talking about?
Weirder still, one vaccine in particular—from Pfizer—has somehow become the cool vaccine, as well as the vaccine for the rich and stylish. Slate’s Heather Schwedel recently discussed the “Pfizer superiority complex” at length. As one source told her: “One of my cousins got Moderna, and I was like, ‘That’s OK. We need a strong middle class.’” On Twitter, the vaccinated are changing their usernames to reflect their new personal identities: There are Pfizer Princesses and Pfizer Floozies and Pfizer Pfairies and at least one Portrait of a Lady on Pfizer. “Pfizer is what was available when I signed up,” Jagger Blaec, a 33-year-old podcast host told me, “but it’s no coincidence every baddie I know has Pfizer and not Moderna.” Isn’t it a coincidence, though?
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Of course, Pfizer did report a 95 percent efficacy rate for its vaccine in clinical trials, versus 94 percent for Moderna, and people do have to wait only three weeks for Pfizer’s second dose, instead of four for Moderna’s, but neither of those facts explains the pure drama and nonsense of a statement like “We need a strong middle class.” On TikTok, hundreds of videos use a soundtrack of a woman explaining—slowly, voice full of disdain, like the rudest preschool teacher on Earth—“Only hot people get the Pfizer vaccine.” In another clip, a young pharmacy technician tells the viewer that one of the side effects of the Pfizer shot is “feeling like a bad bitch.” (He’s very cute!) It follows that anyone who gets the other mRNA vaccine, comparable in almost every way, is, as one woman puts it, a “peasant.”
There has been some pushback on this narrative from Dolly Parton fans, who prefer the Moderna vaccine that she helped fund last year. Jon Ossoff, who is widely regarded online as the “hot senator,” has also made his own TikTok portraying all three of the vaccines available in the U.S. as equally cool and fun—a solid message in the interest of public health. Still, the general consensus is that Pfizer is elite; the general consensus is that Pfizer’s elitism is funny.
“Of course it’s tongue-in-cheek,” Trevor Boffone, the author of an upcoming book about TikTok culture, told me. “No one thinks that the Pfizer vaccine makes you hot or that only hot people get it.”
I understand that, and I agree with that, but my college friends still changed the name of our iMessage group chat to “Pfizer Gang.” And when I watched a video of Joshua Holmes, an NYU drama student who posted that he was hoping to get “the bougiest vaccine” and nothing less, and that “Pfizer just sounds expensive,” it didn’t seem like he was totally joking. When I messaged him on Instagram, he said the silent P gave the word Pfizer a luxurious feel, reminiscent of the silent H in Hermès.
I asked Anthony Shore, a linguist who develops brand names—perfect job—to help me better understand the Pfizer shot’s appeal. At first, he said, “I have no idea.” Then, two days later, when I called him and asked again, he had some thoughts, which generally aligned with Holmes’s impression. First of all, he said, Pfizer is the name of a person—Charles Pfizer, born in 1824 in a kingdom that is now part of Germany—which could contribute to its “sounding expensive.” Many high-end fashion brands are named after people, like Pfizer (Fendi, Prada, Kenzo), and many are two syllables, like Pfizer (Fendi, Prada, Kenzo). Second, he said, Pfizer is a “cool word” because of the F and Z sounds, which are what linguists call “fricatives.” Fricatives “are really fast-sounding,” which is why you might want to include them in the names of cars, or drugs that are marketed as fast-acting—or vaccines that don’t require you to wait a full month between doses.
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Moderna, meanwhile, has a lot of sounds called “stops”—the M, the D, the N—which make the word seem “slow and plodding,” Shore told me. It’s also very literal, like a budget brand would be. “Do you really have to call yourself modern if you’re selling pharmaceuticals that are in fact based on cutting-edge technologies?” he asked. “No, you’d be more cool about it.”
I was a little embarrassed to ask, but I had to: What about my personal theory of the hot-people vaccine, which is that young people prefer Pfizer because of their familiarity with the 2010 movie Love and Other Drugs, in which Jake Gyllenhaal plays a Pfizer sales rep at the height of the 1990s Viagra craze (and does a lot of kissing!)? “Pfizer is a better-known brand, to be sure,” Shore acknowledged, and “Viagra is one of the best-known drugs of all time.” But as far as the movie goes, and Jake Gyllenhaal’s role specifically, “That’s giving that movie and Jake Gyllenhaal a lot of credit.” I laughed a bit to prove I wasn’t upset and he kept going. “That seems like a stretch.” Okay, fine!
I admit it’s a stretch (though I don’t think I’m totally out of line when I imagine that Jake Gyllenhaal would get Pfizer). Shore did leave me with a faint feeling of satisfaction, though. He said that although he was happy to have gotten the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, he’d “coveted” the Pfizer or Moderna shots because of their groundbreaking mRNA technology. “I wanted the cool thing,” he said. I did not tell him that I’m a Pfizer girl, but I did sit with the knowledge.
Pfizer elitism seems to have originated on TikTok, where the vaccine hierarchy has been most concretely outlined. I wondered if it might have something to do with the particulars of that platform, so I reached out to Shauna Pomerantz, a TikTok scholar and an associate professor at Brock University, in Ontario. She suggested a much simpler explanation: The idea of a rich-hot-bougie-elite-status vaccine comes out of American culture, she said, in which everything is extremely competitive and organized around “winners and losers rather than support and kindness.” Yikes.
Certainly some TikTok clips are more explicit than others about the “winners and losers,” and what having a “rich” vaccine really means. One video in my feed, soundtracked by Nicki Minaj rapping about a “bum-ass” person who can’t afford their rent, posited that there is no rivalry between Moderna and Pfizer—rather, “it’s us vs. Johnson & Johnson.” There is some truth, or perceived truth, to this formulation—not just because of the clear differences between the mRNA vaccines and other options, but also because these vaccines have been distributed to different people. The CDC reported last week that many public-health departments have been using Johnson & Johnson specifically for homeless people, as well as those who are homebound or incarcerated. Meanwhile, public-health leaders have struggled to avoid portraying the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, which is also targeted to rural and migrant populations, as a second-class option.
Large differences in access aren’t limited to certain brands, and some degree of “us versus them” applies across all of the available shots. White Americans continue to have higher vaccination rates than Black and Hispanic Americans, for example. And according to a vaccine-equity project run out of Duke University’s Global Health Innovation Center, high-income countries have already purchased more than half of the world’s available vaccine doses.
Seen in that context, ironic Pfizer elitism may feel uncomfortably close to actual elitism. Another vaccine-culture TikTok that went viral paired each brand with its equivalent cellphone—the iPhone for Pfizer, a recent-looking Android model for Moderna, an early 2010s pay-as-you-go Firefly phone for Johnson & Johnson, and a truly ancient Nokia for AstraZeneca. The video compared the slim but tangible differences between Pfizer and Moderna to the silly, perennial debate over whether iPhone users are snobby and judgmental toward people whose texts show up as “green bubbles.” For some commenters, this was a step too far. “Classism is disgusting,” one responded. “Not westerners fighting over which vaccine is best,” another wrote with a sobbing emoji.
This doesn’t necessarily mean that the Pfizer jokes are thoughtless; it’s more like they’re directionless. TikTok is a place where a largely Gen Z and Millennial user base riffs near-constantly on the notion of class and perceived class differences. The idea of a vaccine only for rich, hot people reminded me of TikTok’s fascination, a few years ago, with Apple’s AirPods, and a clip in which a boy approaches a girl on the street and offers her $100 for dinner—he assumed she was homeless, because she was using regular earbuds with wires. This is a joke, but on first watch it’s not totally clear whether the joke is aimed at people who can’t afford AirPods or at people who think owning AirPods signifies something substantial. In either case, it’s really the knowing tone that scores the creator points with an audience.
When TikTok isn’t about earnest dance moves, it favors ironic detachment. It rewards users’ ability to point at, and lampoon, something specific and recognizable—class-based perceptions of different vaccine brands, for example—without demanding any further comment. Yes, TikToks about the vaccine for hot, rich people might call attention to the ways in which the pandemic has laid bare our society’s vast inequalities. Or they could be totally silly! Either way, they leave us swimming in the strange, foundational sadness of vaccine culture, wherein a trip to CVS can be as thrilling as the prom.