Chili's Marketing Mishap

During the first week of April, 2014 the tex mex style restaurant chain Chili's in the USA aimed to promote autism awareness by donating ten percent of income from purchases on a designated night to autism research. At least, that was the impression that was given by any cursory examination of their flyers and promotional emails promoting the charity event. Further investigation, however, reveled that the organization that was to receive the well intentioned proceeds was a proponent of the invalid notion that Autism is caused in part by vaccination. As the public became aware of this stance, there was a significant public backlash, with calls for the boycotting of Chili's due to its support of the pseudoscientific stance. Upon observing this outrcy, Chili's canceled the fundraiser and sent a brief email to its email subscriber's explaining that it had chosen to cancel the fundraising effort due to comments received from the public. While it is certainly to their credit that Chili's had the sense to cancel the event, the more pertinent question is how that event ever came to exist in the first place. Did Chili's intend to support an anti vax group, or was this a well intentioned mistake of someone that truly wanted to further the efforts to promote autism awareness and treatment?

Vaccines and the Anti Vax

An in depth discussion of vaccination and its benefits could extend for a lengthy duration that would not be of interest to readers of this article, so a brief summary should suffice instead. One of the key ways that your body defends itself from infection is by the production of antibodies - specific protein molecules that are able to uniquely identify invading viruses and bacteria in the body so that they can be targeted for destruction without causing disease. After you recover from an illness, you maintain high levels of antibodies against that disease, helping to ensure that you have long term protection and do not immediately become reinfected with that same disease. Vaccines work on this principle in order to protect you from diseases that you have never before had in much the same way. Proteins or inactivated viruses may be injected into your body with certain chemicals that together help to promote an immune and antibody response against these disease causing organisms without requiring you to suffer from the disease. Then, when you encounter the disease in the wild, you will be protected and will not suffer from its ill effects. Vaccine programs have saved millions of lives and have prevented many more cases of disease, saving time, money, and human welfare. Indeed, vaccinations are what enabled the public health effort that eradicated Smallpox from the human population.

Despite the clear and scientifically sound benefits of vaccines, over the last decade or so there has been a growing movement of so called “anti vax” or anti-vaccination people that decry mandatory immunization of children due to varied reasons. These reasons are often vague and are generally based in pseudoscientific claims that vaccines may contain toxic chemicals or that vaccines are in fact not effective at all and that other reasons explain the vaccine linked decrease in human suffering. The most infamous of these claims is that vaccines cause autism when given to small children. These claims originate from a fradulent study by Dr. Andrew Wakefield that was initially published in the medical journal The Lancet. This study claimed that the MMR (Measles, mumps, and rubella) childhood vaccine had been identified as a cause of autism in children. Follow up studies revealed that this result was in fact false, and that Wakefield had altered his data and was being paid by a company that wanted to sue vaccine manufacturers but needed a means by which to do so. The paper was retracted and Wakefield's medical liscence was revoked, but the damage was done.

Now there is a small but vocal minority of parents and other individuals that are strongly anti vax, and many of them sincerely seem to believe that vaccines will cause autism in their children, even though over 200 studies to date have demonstrated that this is not the case at all. Many of these anti vax individuals also support bizzare alternative medicine treatments for autism, rather than relying on scientific disease interventions as well. This is likely due to their desperation to cling to any idea that might promise to restore normalcy to their children's lives, but their misguided hopes have put thousands of lives at risk in the process. Because parents are choosing not to vaccinate their children, these kids can now suffer from rare diseases like polio or rubella that they would otherwise be safe from contracting. In addition, children that cannot get the vaccine owing to of medical reasons will be placed in harm's way by the anti vax contingent. It is thus no surprise that there is a strong public resistance to anti vax campaigners, at least among well educated individuals.

Chili's Mistake - Faux Pas or Free Speech?

The organization that Chili's elected to support for their fundraiser did not expressly advise parents not to vaccinate their children, but it nonetheless assured readers that vaccines were a contributing cause to autism and many of the sites it is affiliated with warn parents against vaccination entirely. As mentioned above, this viewpoint is not valid from any scientific standpoint. Certainly, the organization has the legal right to express this view, but they also have a public obligation not to as it endangers the lives of helpless children for no reason other than fear mongering and pseudo science. Autism is a serious problem, but hand waving and doom saying will not abate the autism epidemic. Only rigorous scientific efforts through research can do that. Chili's no doubt wanted to contribute to the effort to fight autism, as there is wide public support for a number of autism related charities such as Autism Speaks, and it would be a clear boost to their business and public image to support such an organization.

Why Chili's elected to support a controversial autism organization instead of a more common place one may never be certain, but it is unlikely that they had intended to directly advocate against vaccination. They are not a corporation with any history of taking strong or controversial stances against issues (like Chik Fil A, for examples), so it would be unusual to take up such a fringe cause when there is limited public support for such an effort. Instead, it is likely that a marketing person at the company who has since been fired chose the organization that was to benefit from the fundraiser. Whether they chose it based on its legitimate sounding name or based upon some secret anti vax beliefs that they themselves held is unknown, but they nonetheless chose it and no one in the Chili's marketing office did sufficient research to catch wind of the oncoming controversy until it was too late. Chili's would have the right to support an anti vax group if they wanted to, but their revocation of the fundraising efforts suggest that they never intended to really do so in the first place. Instead, this seems like a well intentioned mistake. It is likely that there will remain some public mistrust of corporations like Chili's for the time being, but as it does not seem likely that the company truly holds any anti vax viewpoints their customer base will no doubt return to them over the coming months and years.

Science in Society | Science

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