'Vaccinate so you can fornicate': Public health ad aims to dispel myths about sexual dysfunction

A recent Alberta Health Services message aimed at encouraging vaccinations and dispelling misinformation features a rather salacious slogan.

'It's a serious issue but at the same time ... you can't take yourself too seriously'

Physician says men with COVID-19 have higher rates of developing infertility. (Robert F. Bukaty/The Associated Press)

A recent Alberta Health Services message aimed at encouraging vaccinations and dispelling misinformation features a rather salacious slogan.

"Mask on up to keep it up and vaccinate so you can fornicate may be the mantra for sexual function in the era of COVID-19," urologist Dr. Keith Rourke says in a video posted to Twitter.

Choosing the right tone for the greatest impact can be a challenge for public health messaging. In an interview Friday, Rourke said myths about erectile dysfunction can be difficult to address because it's an uncomfortable topic to broach, especially with younger men.

"It would scare them justifiably and because it's so scary, it's stressful. And because it's so stressful, it's probably hard to talk about it."

Rourke said the lighthearted tone is just one way to reach people, especially those who might get their news from social media.

"It's a serious issue but at the same time, as a urologist in particular, you can't take yourself too seriously."

The ad came about in the weeks following a tweet from musician Nikki Minaj, who claimed a cousin's friend in Trinidad and Tobago had become impotent after vaccination. The story was widely lampooned online and discounted by health authorities in the Caribbean country.

But Rourke said physicians have heard questions regarding sexual dysfunction and the vaccine.  There is no evidence of a connection, he said, and that men who have had COVID-19 develop infertility at higher rates.

"We came up with that cheeky pseudo-slogan, mostly on the spot, but I think it would just be a way to speak to people."

Experts weigh in

Fernando Angulo, an associate professor at MacEwan University's school of business, said the use of an expert creates believability in the message while the advertisement is punchy and perhaps controversial.

"That slogan can create that interestingness but as well can irritate people," he said.

Angulo said there are three broad goals of marketing: creating awareness, changing attitudes and, eventually, changing behaviours.

He said successful advertising requires an understanding of the demographic being marketed to and that the government has a challenge when dealing with vaccine hesitancy. 

Some of the responses on Twitter have been combative while others lauded the humorous slogan.

University of Alberta associate professor of marketing John Pracejus said AHS has had success with humorous irreverence in previous messaging, notably the Mr. COVID campaign from last year.

But those ads were developed by an agency with an objective of making alarming subjects more palatable, he said.

Pracejus doesn't believe this messaging has the right clarity or language.

"Fornicate I don't think is a positive word in anybody's vocabulary, and I don't think it's going to work very well," he said, adding that it could even backfire.

"A lot of the comments are from anti-vaxxers who are now using that as a place to post their sort of conspiratorial nonsense and that doesn't seem useful to me at all."

With files from Wallis Snowdon