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.