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The weird and wacky mascots promoting coronavirus vaccines around the world

Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro poses for photos with the mascot of his nation's vaccination campaign, named Zé Gotinha, or Joseph Droplet, at the Planalto presidential palace in Brasilia on Dec. 16. (Eraldo Peres/AP)
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Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro has been a vocal skeptic of measures to slow the spread of the coronavirus. But that hasn’t stopped him from posing for photos with Zé Gotinha, known as Joseph Droplet in English, the country’s smiley, vaccine-touting mascot.

Brazil’s Ministry of Health first created Zé Gotinha as a friendly (and to some uncanny) face to promote polio vaccine programs for children in the 1980s. The character has since been used in a range of inoculation campaigns against diseases like measles, tuberculosis and whooping cough.

These days, Zé Gotinha’s smile is sometimes concealed behind a face mask. But the message persists that vaccines are no cause for fear.

Mascots have a long history in public health campaigns worldwide, said Heidi Larson, director of the Vaccine Confidence Project at the London School of Hygiene and Topical Medicine.

They are “humorous, playful,” said Larson, in contrast to an often “didactic government” take on vaccination programs.

“It makes it seem less clinical, less government-driven, less ‘You have to take this,’ ” she said. “It can engage all ages.”

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In the 1960s, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention unveiled the “Wellbee,” designed as “the personification of good health,” to promote the uptake of the oral polio vaccine for children, according to the CDC.

Other campaigns have been more memorable because of their shock effect. A few years back the U.K. Male Cancer Awareness Campaign released its mascot — named Mr. Testicles — intended to reduce social stigma around the disease.

The coronavirus pandemic, Larson said, has been a period of particularly “interesting innovation and creativity” around public health messaging because of its global gravity.

“I don’t think that vaccines have ever had the opportunity to show their value way beyond health as they do now,” she said. “It’s such a difficult time and a down time. I think something to get a little bit of personality and humor and humanity in it — we need it.”

Some characters circulating are not coronavirus-specific, like the happy-go-lucky cartoon kid that Clalit, the largest of Israel’s state-mandated health service organizations, used in its messaging pre-pandemic and is now plastered on its posters and immunization cards.

Other mascots have been visual markers of the \pandemic since it began.

How countries are promoting coronavirus safety

Campaigns have featured characters like Koronon, Japan’s anti-coronavirus cat mascot —

— and Covid-Kun, a red-pronged blob geared toward educating children about the virus.

The phenomena has been particularly visible in Asian countries, especially Japan, where there’s already a thriving mascot culture.

One challenge on social media, said Larson, is that a mascot in one context can appear inappropriate in another — such as some iterations of Brazil’s Zé Gotinha that to an American audience might conjure up images of the Ku Klux Klan’s signature garb.

In Israel, a tongue-in-cheek ad produced by the ministry of health to promote covid-19 precautions — in which a winged character named “covid, Cupid’s stepbrother” describes themselves as being from Wuhan, China — caught the ire of Chinese officials in August and was ultimately deleted.

“The best principle is to co-create it with audiences you’re trying to reach,” Larson said.

Shira Rubin contributed to this report from Israel.