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Muppet vaccine promo ruffles some feathers

Smokey Bear taught kids the importance of preventing wildfires. McGruff the Crime Dog warned them not to talk to strangers. And in 1972, Big Bird lined up on “Sesame Street” to receive a measles vaccine as part of a campaign to get more youngsters inoculated against the disease.

Apparently, that was all good.

Then the 8-foot-tall yellow bird had to go and ruin it by tweeting that he got the COVID-19 vaccine.

How dare he!

“I got the COVID-19 vaccine today!” Big Bird tweeted Nov. 6 on his official Twitter account.

(Yes, Big Bird tweets. No, I’m not talking about the kind of tweeting and chirping that wakes us all up on summer mornings.)

“My wing is feeling a little sore, but it’ll give my body an extra protective boost that keeps me and others healthy,” he continued.

Most parents I know love “Sesame Street.” As youngsters, my kids loved the show — especially Elmo. They spent hours glued to VHS tapes of “Elmo’s World” where the lovable, furry red creature taught wonderful lessons about things like sharing, eating healthy, embracing diversity, paying attention to people of poverty or of different colors and generally being a good person.

Frankly, I’m hard-pressed to find anything ever expressed by any “Sesame Street” creature — human or muppet — with which I flat-out disagreed.

But apparently, in today’s crazy, divided world, even muppets can cause a stir.

Yes, there have been some past political muppet disputes connected to things like federal funding of the U.S. public broadcasting system, but nothing like this latest fallout. It comes largely because Big Bird’s tweet coincides with rollout of the COVID-19 vaccine availability to children between the ages of 5 and 11.

But this isn’t a new concept.

Nearly 50 years ago, “Sesame Street,” in its third season, encouraged kids to get measles vaccines by showing Big Bird and children getting the injection. The move was similar to other public service campaigns that used beloved characters to help teach children life lessons, including discouraging littering, wearing seatbelts and looking both ways before crossing the street.

“What Big Bird is doing is part of a long tradition. But what’s different now, of course, is that everything is political and everything is contentious,” Thomas Doherty, an American studies professor at Brandeis University, told the Associated Press this month.

Big Bird’s tweet, of course, comes at a time when educational messages directed toward children are under increased scrutiny. Schools’ handling of mask and testing requirements during a pandemic has been a hot topic across the country and in schools right here at home. Some who question the COVID-19 vaccines’ safety or effectiveness are pushing back against marketing it directly to kids.

The AP reports it got so bad in Tennessee, for instance, that state briefly halted its vaccine outreach to children and fired its top vaccination director after GOP leaders threatened to dissolve the health agency over marketing efforts to get children vaccinated against the disease.

During a meeting with department heads, Republican Rep. Scott Cepicky held up a printout of the ad featuring a smiling teen with a Band-Aid who had recently been vaccinated and called it “reprehensible.”

Really? Reprehensible?

Let’s all just calm down for a moment.

From where I sit, I see no reason to act like a bird brain.

Without a doubt, vaccinating our kids against COVID-19 is a personal choice. And at the end of the day, a tweet by any fine feathered friend, or even a comment on a children’s TV show, shouldn’t be viewed as negative interference or propaganda.

Let’s face it: If parents feel that strongly about it, do we really think the child is going to walk into the pharmacy or doctor’s office on their own and against Mom and Dad’s wishes to get the shot?

And how many 7-year-olds do you know who follow Big Bird on Twitter without their parents’ consent? (If they do, there might be a bigger problem, here.)

At the end of the day, parental control is still key, and nothing Big Bird tweets is going to take that away.

blinert@tribtoday.com

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